Stress-level cortisol treatment impairs inhibitory control of behavior in monkeys

Lyons, D. M.Lopez, J. M.Yang, C.Schatzberg, A. F.
J Neurosci. 2000; 20(20):7816-7821.


Most studies of cortisol-induced cognitive impairments have focused on hippocampal-dependent memory. This study investigates a different aspect of cognition in a randomized placebo-controlled experiment with monkeys that were treated with cortisol according to a protocol that simulates a prolonged stress response. Young adult and older adult monkeys were assigned randomly to placebo or chronic treatment with cortisol in a 2 x 2 factorial design (n = 8 monkeys per condition). Inhibitory control of behavior was assessed with a test shown previously in primates to reflect prefrontal cortical dysfunction. Failure to inhibit a specific goal-directed response was evident more often in older adults. Treatment with cortisol increased this propensity in both older and young adult monkeys. Age-related differences in response inhibition were consistent across blocks of repeated test trials, but the treatment effects were clearly expressed only after prolonged exposure to cortisol. Aspects of performance that did not require inhibition were not altered by age or treatment with cortisol, which concurs with effects on response inhibition rather than nonspecific changes in behavior. These findings lend support to related reports that cortisol-induced disruptions in prefrontal dopamine neurotransmission may contribute to deficits in response inhibition and play a role in cognitive impairments associated with endogenous hypercortisolism in humans.