How Stress Affects Memory in the Brain

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There are three biological theories of how stress leads to poor memory:

1. Corticosteroids cause damage to the hippocampus.

2. Chronic stress increases toxic free radical formation.

3. Stress stimulates the sympathetic nerves, which in turn leads to high blood pressure and heart disease, thereby increasing the risk of strokes in the brain.

The scientist Robert Sapolsky developed the first theory: excessive stress leads to increased production of corticosteroids, which inhibit the utilization of blood sugar, which in turn leads to death of nerve cells in the hippocampus. These provocative findings have convinced a whole slew of basic researchers to tackle this area of research, but the clinical data are not yet conclusive. Nonetheless, this theory suggests that the use of steroids, even when given for medically indicated conditions such as severe asthma, may not be very good for your brain.

Animal studies show that chronic stress can lead to increased formation of free radicals. As previously discussed, these free radicals, including "bad" oxygen, can inflict damage on vulnerable cells in the hippocampus and other brain regions. The outcome, not surprisingly, is memory loss.

There is a third, indirect, way in which stress can induce memory loss. Stress stimulates the sympathetic nerves that supply the heart and affect blood pressure. As a result, chronic stress increases the likelihood of heart disease and high blood pressure. High blood pressure and heart disease can, in turn, lead to the development of strokes, including ministrokes, in the brain that can affect memory.

So whichever way you look at it, high levels of stress are not good for your memory. Reduce Stress Bit by Bit

The hallmark of successful stress reduction is to do it bit by bit, however small each element may seem, and keep at it on a continuous basis. The emotions attached to relationships, marriage, children, parents, and career can be overwhelming and make you feel that tackling the big problems in these areas is the only way to control stress. Unfortunately, solving these "biggies" is often very difficult and may be impossible to achieve; it is much easier to gain control over smaller sources of chronic stress. Learn how to relax, practice how to cut down the unnecessary stimuli in this era of information overload.

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