Prolonged Physiological Stress Is Associated With a Lower Rate of Exploratory Learning That Is Compounded by Depression

Erika A. Kaske, Cathy S. Chen, Collin Meyer, Flora Yang, Becket Ebitz, Nicola Grissom, Amita Kapoor, David P. Darrow, Alexander B. Herman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Stress is a major risk factor for depression, and both are associated with important changes in decision-making patterns. However, decades of research have only weakly connected physiological measurements of stress to the subjective experience of depression. Here, we examined the relationship between prolonged physiological stress, mood, and explore-exploit decision making in a population navigating a dynamic environment under stress: health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Methods: We measured hair cortisol levels in health care workers who completed symptom surveys and performed an explore-exploit restless-bandit decision-making task; 32 participants were included in the final analysis. Hidden Markov and reinforcement learning models assessed task behavior. Results: Participants with higher hair cortisol exhibited less exploration (r = −0.36, p = .046). Higher cortisol levels predicted less learning during exploration (β = −0.42, false discovery rate [FDR]–corrected p [pFDR] = .022). Importantly, mood did not independently correlate with cortisol concentration, but rather explained additional variance (β = 0.46, pFDR = .022) and strengthened the relationship between higher cortisol and lower levels of exploratory learning (β = −0.47, pFDR = .022) in a joint model. These results were corroborated by a reinforcement learning model, which revealed less learning with higher hair cortisol and low mood (β = −0.67, pFDR = .002). Conclusions: These results imply that prolonged physiological stress may limit learning from new information and lead to cognitive rigidity, potentially contributing to burnout. Decision-making measures link subjective mood states to measured physiological stress, suggesting that they should be incorporated into future biomarker studies of mood and stress conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)703-711
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Computational psychiatry
  • Cortisol
  • Depression
  • Explore-exploit
  • Health care workers
  • Stress

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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