Stress-related adrenal steroid hormones modulate brain and cognitive function. Electrophysiological studies, including primed burst potentiation and long-term potentiation, have indicated concentration-dependent inverted U-shape effects of corticosterone in hippocampal function and plasticity. Here, we explored the role of corticosterone in the consolidation and long-term retrieval of spatial learning in the Morris water maze task in rats. We postulated that corticosterone actions might be experience-dependent with regard to stimulus intensity, such as differential water temperatures. Indeed, rats trained at 19 degrees C showed a quicker rate of acquisition and better long-term retention than rats trained at 25 degrees C water. In addition, post-training corticosterone levels, on the first training day, were significantly higher in rats in the 19 degrees C group than in the 25 degrees C group. Performance of rats trained at 25 degrees C, but not at 19 degrees C, water was improved by injecting them i.p. with corticosterone immediately after each training session. Thus, the effect of exogenously administered corticosterone appears to be experience-dependent, with the experience-induced corticosterone concentrations as a critical factor determining the cognitive consequences of steroid treatment. Therefore, this work indicates a facilitating corticosterone action, during the post-training period, on the neural mechanisms determining the strength of information storage under acute, physiological conditions.