BACKGROUND: There is an extensive literature describing how stress disturbs cognitive processing and can exacerbate psychiatric disorders. There is, however, an insufficient understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in stress effects on brain and behavior. METHODS: Rats were given spatial memory training in a hippocampus-dependent water maze task. We investigated how a fear-provoking experience (predator exposure) would affect their spatial memory and neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM) levels in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex (PFC), amygdala, and cerebellum. RESULTS: Whereas the control (nonstress) group exhibited excellent memory for the hidden platform location in the water maze, the cat-exposed (stress) group exhibited a profound impairment of memory and a marked suppression of levels of the NCAM-180 isoform in the hippocampus. Predator stress produced a more global reduction of NCAM levels in the PFC but had no effect on NCAM levels in the amygdala and cerebellum. CONCLUSIONS: This work provides a novel perspective into dynamic and structure-specific changes in the molecular events involved in learning, memory, and stress. The selective suppression of NCAM-180 in the hippocampus and the more general suppression of NCAM in the PFC provide insight into the mechanisms underlying the great sensitivity of these two structures to be disturbed by stress.