Stress is widely considered to negatively impact hippocampal function, thus impairing episodic memory. However, the hippocampus is not merely the seat of episodic memory. Rather, it also (via distinct circuitry) supports statistical learning. On the basis of rodent work suggesting that stress may impair the hippocampal pathway involved in episodic memory while sparing or enhancing the pathway involved in statistical learning, we developed a behavioral experiment to investigate the effects of acute stress on both episodic memory and statistical learning in humans. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: stress (socially evaluated cold pressor) immediately before learning, stress ∼15 min before learning, or no stress. In the learning task, participants viewed a series of trial-unique scenes (allowing for episodic encoding of each image) in which certain scene categories reliably followed one another (allowing for statistical learning of associations between paired categories). Memory was assessed 24 hr later to isolate stress effects on encoding/learning rather than retrieval. We found modest support for our hypothesis that acute stress can amplify statistical learning: Only participants stressed ∼15 min in advance exhibited reliable evidence of learning across multiple measures. Furthermore, stress-induced cortisol levels predicted statistical learning retention 24 hr later. In contrast, episodic memory did not differ by stress condition, although we did find preliminary evidence that acute stress promoted memory for statistically predictable information and attenuated competition between statistical and episodic encoding. Together, these findings provide initial insights into how stress may differentially modulate learning processes within the hippocampus.

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