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Effects of cortisol on memory in women with borderline personality disorder: role of co-morbid post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression

  • K. Wingenfeld (a1) (a2), M. Driessen (a3), K. Terfehr (a2), N. Schlosser (a3), S. Carvalho Fernando (a3), C. Otte (a1), T. Beblo (a3), C. Spitzer (a4), B. Löwe (a2) and O. T. Wolf (a5)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 19 September 2012

Stress and cortisol administration are known to have impairing effects on memory retrieval in healthy humans. These effects are reported to be altered in patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but they have not yet been investigated in borderline personality disorder (BPD).


In a placebo-controlled cross-over study, 71 women with BPD and 40 healthy controls received either placebo or 10 mg of hydrocortisone orally before undertaking a declarative memory retrieval task (word list learning) and an autobiographical memory test (AMT). A working memory test was also applied.


Overall, opposing effects of cortisol on memory were observed when comparing patients with controls. In controls, cortisol had impairing effects on memory retrieval whereas in BPD patients cortisol had enhancing effects on memory retrieval of words, autobiographical memory and working memory. These effects were most pronounced for specificity of autobiographical memory retrieval. Patients with BPD alone and those with co-morbid PTSD showed this effect. We also found that co-morbid MDD influenced the cortisol effects: in this subgroup (BPD + MDD) the effects of cortisol on memory were absent.


The present results demonstrate beneficial effects of acute cortisol elevations on hippocampal-mediated memory processes in BPD. The absence of these effects in patients with co-morbid MDD suggests that these patients differ from other BPD patients in terms of their sensitivity to glucocorticoids (GCs).

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence to: Dr K. Wingenfeld, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Charité University Berlin, Campus Benjamin Franklin, Eschenallee 3, 14050 Berlin, Germany. (Email:
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