How stressful days steal your memories

By Jonathan Knight EXTREME stress, such as that felt by war refugees, can significantly impair memory in as little as four days, say psychologists who have traced the effect to a single hormone. Psychologists have known for some time that prolonged stress can cause amnesia or otherwise adversely affect memory. No one is quite sure what causes the impairment, but many suspect the hormone cortisol, which is active in the brain while people are stressed. To shed some light on this, John Newcomer and his colleagues at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, gave 51 volunteers a daily dose of cortisol pills for four days. While some had only a low dose or a placebo, others took as much cortisol as you would find in the blood of a person fleeing their burning village in war, says Newcomer. Before they started taking the pills, all three groups scored equally well in memory tests. After one day, there was no significant change. But by the fourth day, participants on the highest dose had a harder time than the others reciting a short paragraph read to them 30 minutes before (Archives of General Psychiatry, vol 56, p 527). “The good news is it takes several days of exposure to produce this effect on memory,” says Newcomer. Furthermore, milder stresses such as cramming for an exam would not produce such high levels of cortisol in most people, he says. Six days after the doses were stopped, all the volunteers had similar scores again. This is the first report of a clear effect on memory within the body’s normal range of cortisol levels, comments James Bremner, who studies stress and memory at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He says the results may have implications for more severe memory loss as well. “Amnesia has a biological base,
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