Stressful events affect mnemonic processing, in particular for emotionally arousing events. Previous research on the mechanisms underlying stress effects on human memory focused on stress-induced changes in the neural activity elicited by a stimulus. We tested an alternative mechanism and hypothesized that stress may already alter the neural context for successful memory formation, reflected in the neural activity preceding a stimulus. Therefore, 69 participants underwent a stress or control procedure before encoding neutral and negative pictures. During encoding, we recorded high-density EEG and analyzed—based on multivariate searchlight analyses—oscillatory activity and cross-frequency coupling patterns before stimulus onset that were predictive of memory tested 24 hr later. Prestimulus theta predicted subsequent memory in controls but not in stressed participants. Instead, prestimulus gamma predicted successful memory formation after stress, specifically for emotional material. Likewise, stress altered the patterns of prestimulus theta–beta and theta–gamma phase–amplitude coupling predictive of subsequent memory, again depending on the emotionality of the presented material. Our data suggest that stress changes the neural context for building new memories, tuning this neural context specifically to the encoding of emotionally salient events. These findings point to a yet unknown mechanism through which stressful events may change (emotional) memory formation.

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