Heather C. Abercrombie

Heather Abercrombie
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry
(608) 263-6126


Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lab Website:


Research Focus:

We seek to understand mechanisms that determine why some individuals are neurocognitively vulnerable to stressors, whereas other individuals are resilient in the face of stress.

Research Strength:

Behavior, Cognition and Emotion

Research Description:

We study the effects of the adrenal hormone cortisol on emotional memory in healthy and depressed humans. Cortisol has robust effects on memory and learning. However, many factors alter cortisol’s effects on learning. Our lab studies how inter-individual differences (e.g., affective style, history of early adversity) alter how cortisol affects emotional learning.

Using fMRI, we study how cortisol’s effects on the neural circuitry of emotional learning play a role in depression. This research is contributing to a reconceptualization of cortisol research in depression that takes into account cortisol neural signaling (which can be altered even when circulating cortisol concentrations are unaffected). Rather than examination of cortisol dysregulation as a downstream “biomarker” of depression, we are examining how variation in cortisol’s effects on target tissues plays a role in depression. A growing body of literature is suggestive (counter-intuitively) of reduced tissue sensitivity to cortisol and under-signaling of cortisol in the brain in depression. If under-signaling of cortisol in the brain occurs in depression, then acute elevation of cortisol may temporarily normalize cortisol signaling and restore functioning in neural structures whose functioning is intimately tied to cortisol levels, such as the hippocampus. Our goal is to elucidate identifiable factors that predict variation in neural and cognitive response to cortisol elevations.


Please see PubMed for most recent publications