Deficits in hippocampus-mediated pavlovian conditioning in endogenous hypercortisolism

Christian Grillon, Kathryn Smith, Ann Haynos, Lynnette K. Nieman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Elevated endogenous levels of corticosteroids cause neural dysfunction and loss, especially within the hippocampus, as well as cognitive impairment in hippocampus-mediated tasks. Because Cushing's syndrome patients suffer from hypercortisolism, they represent a unique opportunity to study the impact of elevated glucocorticoids on cognitive functions. The aim of this study was to examine the performance of Cushing's syndrome patients on trace eyeblink conditioning, a cross-species, hippocampal-mediated test of learning and memory. Eleven Cushing's syndrome patients and 11 healthy control subjects participated in an eyeblink trace conditioning test (1000-msec trace) and a task of declarative memory for words. Salivary cortisol was collected in both the patients and the control subjects, and urinary free cortisol was collected in the patients only. The patients exhibited fewer conditional responses and remembered fewer words, compared with the control subjects. Cortisol levels correlated with immediate and delayed declarative memory only. Conditional response correlated with delayed recall after controlling for the magnitude of unconditional response. The integrity of the hippocampus seems to be compromised in Cushing's syndrome patients. Trace eyeblink conditioning might be useful both as a clinical tool to examine changes in hippocampus function in Cushing's disease patients and as a translational tool of research on the impact of chronic exposure of glucocorticoids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)837-843
Number of pages7
JournalBiological psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Dec 1 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support of this study was provided by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health. We thank Kathleen West for performing the salivary cortisol assays.


  • Cushing's syndrome
  • Trace eyeblink conditioning
  • classical conditioning
  • glucocorticoids
  • hypercortisolism
  • verbal memory


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