Acute stress has been shown to modulate the engagement of different memory systems, leading to preferential expression of stimulus–response (SR) rather than episodic context memory when both types of memory can be used. However, questions remain regarding the cognitive mechanism that underlies this bias in humans—specifically, how each form of memory is individually influenced by stress in order for SR memory to be dominant. Here we separately measured context and SR memory and investigated how each was influenced by acute stress after learning (Experiment 1) and before retrieval (Experiment 2). We found that postlearning stress, in tandem with increased adrenergic activity during learning, impaired consolidation of context memory and led to preferential expression of SR rather than context memory. Preretrieval stress also impaired context memory, albeit transiently. Neither postlearning nor preretrieval stress changed the expression of SR memory. However, individual differences in cortisol reactivity immediately after learning were associated with variability in initial SR learning. These results reveal novel cognitive mechanisms by which stress can modulate multiple memory systems.

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