Acutely elevated cortisol levels in healthy humans impair autobiographical memory recall and alter hemodynamic responses of the amygdala to emotionally valenced stimuli. It is hypothesized that the effects of the cortisol on cognition are influenced by the ratio of mineralocorticoid receptor to glucocorticoid receptor occupation. The current study examined the effects of acutely blocking mineralocorticoid receptors and glucocorticoid receptors separately on 2 processes known to be affected by altering levels of cortisol: the specificity of autobiographical memory recall, and the amygdala hemodynamic response to sad and happy faces.
We employed a within-subjects design in which 10 healthy male participants received placebo, the mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist spironolactone (600mg) alone, and the glucocorticoid receptor antagonist mifepristone (600mg) alone in a randomized, counter-balanced order separated by 1-week drug-free periods.
On autobiographical memory testing, mineralocorticoid receptor antagonism impaired, while glucocorticoid receptor antagonism improved, recall relative to placebo, as evinced by changes in the percent of specific memories recalled. During fMRI, the amygdala hemodynamic response to masked sad faces was greater under both mineralocorticoid receptor and glucocorticoid receptor antagonism relative to placebo, while the response to masked happy faces was attenuated only during mineralocorticoid receptor antagonism relative to placebo.
These data suggest both mineralocorticoid receptor and glucocorticoid receptor antagonism (and potentially any deviation from the normal physiological mineralocorticoid receptor/glucocorticoid receptor ratio achieved under the circadian pattern) enhances amygdala-based processing of sad stimuli and may shift the emotional processing bias away from the normative processing bias and towards the negative valence. In contrast, autobiographical memory was enhanced by conditions of reduced glucocorticoid receptor occupancy.