The Cahill Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine

Focusing on Neural Mechanisms of Emotionally Influenced Memory

If you are interested in working in the lab as a volunteer research assistant, please contact Dr. Cahill (

Members of the lab

Principal Investigator

Larry Cahill
Ph.D, Psychobiology - University of California, Irvine (1990)

Postdoctoral Scholars

Nikole K. Ferree
Ph.D., Neurobiology & Behavior - University of California, Irvine (2010)
B.A., Psychology - Reed College (2001)

My research focuses on hormonal contributions to the experience of spontaneous intrusive recollections (SIRs). SIRs occur after viewing emotional films and are instances of images from the films popping into one's head involuntarily. I have found that people report more SIRs after emotional than neutral films, and that that SIR frequency correlates with memory strength under emotional but not neutral conditions. Because real world emotional experiences are often accompanied by cortisol release, a current study in the lab is concerned with examining the relationship between cortisol and SIR frequency. I have each subject watch emotional films and then immerse his/her arm in ice water to create a robust cortisol release, and then determine whether the magnitude of the cortisol release is related to SIR frequency. Because one of the key clinical features of post-traumatic stress disorder is intrusive symptoms, another line of research in the lab explores the potential clinical relevance of my laboratory findings. In a previous study in the lab, I found that women in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle report significantly more SIRs than either women in the follicular phase or men, and that.salivary progesterone levels are positively correlated with SIR frequency. We are currently working with Forensic Nurse Specialists, Inc. to investigate whether a woman's position within the menstrual cycle at the time of a trauma influences her post-traumatic stress symptoms in subsequent months. We are also exploring whether exogenously administered progesterone, in the form of emergency contraception given after a sexual assault, has any influence on subsequent post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Graduate Students

Shawn E. Nielsen
B.S., Biopsychology - University of California, Santa Barbara (2007)

My research is focused on the study of sex and stress influences on the emotional memory of gist and detail. In my experiments, I study the influence of stress on memory for emotional gist and detail in naturally cycling women, women on hormonal contraception, and men. I also utilize eye tracking technology to examine potential differences in attention and arousal between these three groups. From these experiments, I aim to further elucidate the influence of sex and stress hormones on emotional memory and to better understand how hormonal contraception may alter both stress responses and memory.

Nicole Ertman
B.S., Biopsychology - State University of New York, Binghamton (2006)

I'm interested in understanding the contributions of sex hormones to emotional memory. We recently published our findings that progesterone correlates positively with subsequent emotional memory, and perhaps as a consequence of this, emotional memory improves in the luteal (high hormone) phase of the menstrual cycle. I plan to extend these findings using fMRI to see what, if any, functional activity changes can be observed when sex hormones fluctuate, either endogenously due to the menstrual cycle, or as a result of exogenous manipulations.

Lab Alumni

Sabrina K. Segal
Ph.D., Neurobiology & Behavior - University of California, Irvine (2010)
B.S., Biopsychology - University of California, Santa Barbara (2001)

My research focuses on the influence of norepinephrine and cortisol interactions on memory consolidation in men and women. In a previous study in the lab I found that young healthy individuals recalled more emotionally arousing images than neutral, and that this memory enhancement was directly proportional to the amount of endogenous norepinephrine that was released at the time of encoding. I use salivary alpha-amylase, a biomarker for norepinephrine to measure participants' noradrenergic response to various stressors. In a more recent study, I administered hydrocortisone (synthetic cortisol) to naturally cycling women in the mid-luteal phase of the menstrual cycle who viewed a combination of emotional and neutral images. The results suggest that the interaction between norepinephrine and cortisol may be an important factor in emotional memory. We are currently examining whether the use of an acute exercise paradigm that activates endogenous norepinephrine will enhance memory in healthy older adults, as well as patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Joseph M. Andreano
Ph.D, Neurobiology and Behavior - University of California, Irvine (2008)
B.A., Psychology/Philosophy - Rutgers College (2001)
CV (download as pdf)

Currently at: the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory

My research in the Cahill Lab focused on the interactions between sex and stress hormones in the formation of emotional memories. In previous studies, I investigated differences in the relationship between cortisol and memory consolidation between men and women, as well as between women in hormonally distinct phases of the menstrual cycle. In a subsequent study using fMRI, I observed differences in the neural correlates of emotional encoding associated with these phases. My most recent project aims to characterize the hormonal, behavioral, and neural effects of the suppression of ovarian hormones by studying a population of breast cancer survivors treated with the GnRH agonist Lupron. Our preliminary work, done in collaboration with the Breastlink Medical Group has established both an impairment of emotional memory and a disruption of HPA activity in these patients. We are currently working with Breastlink to identify effects of Lupron on emotional processing using fMRI. If you are interested in helping with this project, please visit our projects page for more information.

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