Mateo, J.M. In press. Inverted-U shape relationship between cortisol and learning in ground squirrels. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
Adrenal hormones regulate glucose levels, responses to unpredictable stressors and modulate cognition. Glucocorticoids can have an inverted-U shape relationship with cognition, as very low or high levels impair, whereas moderate elevations facilitate, acquisition and retention of memories. To date these relationships have been tested with humans and rodents in laboratory settings rather than with wild animals in biologically relevant contexts. I examined whether the elevated cortisol observed in juvenile Belding's ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) at natal emergence might promote both acquisition of adaptive responses to this species' two alarm calls warning of predators and memory of the spatial configuration of mothers' territories. Both experimentally increased and decreased basal cortisol levels interfere with acquisition and retention of an association between a warning call and the appropriate response compared with naturally occurring moderately elevated cortisol. Further, decreased cortisol impairs learning of a novel, complex spatial maze. Thus in the field the brief elevation of cortisol at emergence might facilitate acquisition of spatial memory of a three-dimensional environment and responses to alarm calls during a sensitive period of learning. This novel demonstration of the inverted-U shape function in a wild animal suggests that natural selection has favored a hormonal profile facilitating rapid acquisition of important survival behaviors.