Heather Abercrombie

PhD, 2001, UW-Madison (Psychology)

Associate Professor


(608) 263-6126

Office: 1539 WISPIC

Our research investigates alterations in the effects of the stress-related hormone cortisol on neural and psychological processes in depression.

Brief elevations of cortisol have many beneficial effects, despite the detrimental effects of chronic cortisol elevations. For instance, cortisol can benefit emotional memory formation and support adaptation to stressors. Many individuals with depression show a physiological insensitivity to cortisol elevations, which we hypothesize to interfere with the beneficial effects of cortisol. The main question our research addresses: In depressed individuals with cortisol insensitivity, can we normalize emotional memory and brain activity by boosting the cortisol signal?

We address this question using a number of methods, including pharmacological manipulation of cortisol, tests of emotional memory formation, brain imaging, and epigenetics. Our over-arching goal is to identify psychobiological mechanisms in depression, which can inform the development of targeted intervention strategies. Possibly, for individuals who show physiological insensitivity to cortisol, treatments that boost the cortisol signal may help alleviate depression. Additional research is needed to establish how targeting cortisol sensitivity may be useful in the treatment of depression.