It has been documented that stress or glucocorticoids have conflicting effects on memory under different conditions. However, it is not fully understood why stress can either impair or enhance memory. Here, we have examined the performance of six age groups of Wistar rats in a water maze spatial task to evaluate the effects of stress under different conditions. We found that the impairment or enhancement effect of an 'elevated platform' (EP) stress on memory was dependent on previous stress experience and on age. EP stress impaired memory retrieval in water maze naive animals, but enhanced rather than impaired memory retrieval in young water maze stress-experienced animals. Furthermore, exogenously applied corticosterone or foot shock stress before water maze training prevented the impairment of memory retrieval that should be induced by treatment with corticosterone or foot shock before the 'probe trial'. Again, memory retrieval was enhanced in young animals under these conditions, and this enhancement can be prevented by the glucocorticoid receptor antagonist RU 38486. Thus, glucocorticoid receptor activation not only induced impairment of memory but also increased the capacity of young animals to overcome a later stress. The present findings suggest that the effect of stress on memory can be switched from impairment to enhancement dependent on both stress experience and age.
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