Monday, July 8, 2013

Forget About It!—How Stress Harms Your Memory

While it’s hardly news that stressful living is not good for us, more recent studies show that stress can negatively affect your ability to think and to remember things.  Fortunately, scientists have also identified a potential solution to treat stress-related damage to the brain.  But until that solution is proven out and becomes available to doctors, here’s what you need to know about the dangers of stress to your memory.

Stress – a known hazard

Long before this recent discovery connecting stress and memory loss, stressful living had already been implicated in a litany of human misery:
In short, stress can tear you up physically and emotionally.  This new research adds memory impairment and decision-making disability to this list – just one more reason to take steps to remove the stress in your life.

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Research connecting stress and memory loss

The study, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, found a connection between repeated stress and damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that affects how well you think and remember.

This is not the first study to connect chronic stress with changes in the prefrontal cortex, but this research effort has revealed the how it happens – what neural stress responses actually harm many mental abilities.
The study focused on the effect of repeated stress on the working memory of rats.  Researchers found that stress interfered with the connections between neurons (synapses) in the front of the brain: the prefrontal cortex. 

The prefrontal cortex controls both your working memory and your decision-making prowess.   Unfortunately, stress hormones in the brain zero in on the synaptic connections in this part of the brain.  The number of connections remained constant, but not their functioning; researchers report that the connection quality took a dive, which they identified as a drop in glutamate receptor activity on the very neurons that are known to the quash memory function.

With prefrontal cortex dysfunction to blame for many stress-related mental disorders, as well as memory and decision-making, figuring out the molecular mechanisms affected by stress is a substantial step forward in our ability to understand how stress influences mental abilities.

Is there Light at the end of the stress tunnel?

The researchers in this stress study not only identified the way that stress affects brain function, but also experimented with ways to block these stress-induced decreases in glutamate receptors and the resulting memory malfunction.  Could these synaptic-strangling reactions to stress be prevented?

The answer appears to “yes,” at least in mice.  The researchers used chemicals known as protease inhibitors, injecting them into the prefrontal cortex.  They discovered that this infusion blocked the glutamate receptor damage done by stress. 

Today, this is good news for mice.  But in the future, scientists suspect that this infusion technique may be usable on the human brain as a treatment to prevent the effects that repeated stress has on our brains. 

Stressed man at work

Ways to reduce stress in the workplace

Ironic, isn’t it, that we are often stressed out because of the mental load that a hectic schedule or challenging work assignment puts on us, and yet this stress worsens our ability to manage such tasks and juggle these stressful responsibilities.  Employers can learn from this, taking steps to minimize workplace stress. 

For example, many studies have tied physical exercise to stress reduction.  Providing facilities for employee physical activities (ball courts, fitness centers, game fields, and showers/locker rooms) and encouraging work breaks for using these facilities may provide beneficial stress relief to employees that, in turn, could boost productivity by reducing stress-related memory loss.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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