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10.7: Hormones, Learning, and Memory

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Describe the structures involved in hormone release
    2. Discuss the role of hormones in neuromodulation mediating the effects of motivation, reward, and emotion on learning and memory


    Hormone release is under the control of the pituitary which in turn is under the control of parts of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain below the thalamus. Memory and learning can be influenced by hormones which may act as neuromodulators associated with motivation, rewards, and emotions. The effects of hormones are slower to act but produce more long-lasting effects widely distributed over large regions of the brain.

    Cross section of human brain showing hypothalamus near the base of the brain and the pituitary below the hypothalamus.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Cross-section of the human head showing hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The hypothalamus control the pituitary gland, the "master gland" of the endocrine system, which releases pituitary hormones into the bloodstream which control other endocrine glands throughout the body. (Image from Wikimedia Commons; File:LocationOfHypothalamus.jpg;; by NIH; mage is a work of the National Institutes of Health, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, taken or made as part of an employee's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain).

    Hormonal Influences on Memory

    It is important to be aware that memory does not depend solely on a few synapses in the hippocampus or elsewhere in the brain. For example, several studies indicate that the major neuromodulation systems in the brain (such as those which use dopamine or serotonin) also greatly influence synaptic plasticity.

    These neuromodulators are part of the molecular mechanisms through which factors such as motivation, rewards, and emotions can influence learning. A major source of neuromodulation is hormones. The hormonal neurons are concentrated mainly in the brainstem and the central region of the brain including the hypothalamus which regulates the pituitary gland. The neurons of the brain secrete substances that regulate the functions of the glands in the rest of the body. The main pathway through which this regulation occurs passes through the pituitary gland, a small gland that is located at the base of the brain and whose hormones influence practically all of the other glands in the body. The pituitary gland is strongly influenced by the neuromodulators produced by the hypothalamus (which are therefore classified as neurohormones). These neurons form small masses of thousands of cells, but these cells project their axons into large areas of the forebrain and the midbrain.

    Just one of these neurons can therefore influence over 100,000 others through the neuromodulators that it secretes into the brain’s extracellular space (rather than into a synaptic gap). Each of these groups of neurons projects its axons into large areas of the central nervous system and thus modulates numerous behaviors, including sexual motivation and sexual behavior.

    The effects of these neuromodulators take longer to become established and last longer than those of the neurotransmitters in the circuits of the brain. One reason for these differences is that many of these neuromodulator effects are mediated by “second messengers.”

    Neuroscientists are getting closer to tying psychological activities in humans and animals to specific molecular processes, even though we are still far from understanding all of the influences acting on the billions of connections in our brains--synaptic connections continuously undergoing modification moment to moment throughout our lives.


    Adapted by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer, Ph.D., licensed under CC BY 4.0 from The Brain from Top to Bottom,, license: Copyleft,

    This page titled 10.7: Hormones, Learning, and Memory is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kenenth A. Koenigshofer (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .