Cortisol plays an important role in learning and memory. An inverted-U shaped function has been proposed to account for the positive and negative effects of cortisol on cognitive performance and memory in adults, such that too little or too much impair but moderate amounts facilitate performance. Whether such relationships between cortisol and mental function apply to early infancy, when cortisol secretion, learning, and memory undergo rapid developmental changes, is unknown. We compared relationships between learning/memory and cortisol in preterm and full-term infants and examined whether a greater risk for adrenal insufficiency associated with prematurity produces differential cortisol-memory relationships. Learning in three-month old (corrected for gestational age) preterm and full-term infants was evaluated using a conjugate reinforcement mobile task. Memory was tested by repeating the same task 24h later. Salivary cortisol samples were collected before and 20 min after the presentation of the mobile. We found that preterm infants had lower cortisol levels and smaller cortisol responses than full-term infants. This is consistent with relative adrenal insufficiency reported in the neonatal period. Infants who showed increased cortisol levels from 0 to 20 min on Day 1 had significantly better memory, regardless of prematurity, than infants who showed decreased cortisol levels.
Haley, D. W., Weinberg, J., & Grunau, R. E. (2006). Cortisol, contingency learning, and memory in preterm and full-term infants. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31(1), 108-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.06.007