Stress and Memory

There has been extensive research done on how stress affects people’s wellbeing but now there has been research conducted on how sustained stress erodes memory. Specifically looked at in the studies I found was working memory, which we learned is what we use whenever you have multiple ideas in your mind. Some people can hold more items in their working memory and others hold less, and people under a stressful situation hold less ideas than anyone. An experiment that has been conducted with mice found that when they were repeatedly exposed to an aggressive intruder, they had a hard time remembering where an escape hole was in a maze. They had mastered this maze previous to the stressful period. In working memory, the stressful event may be interrupting the rats ability to retrieve a procedural or episodic memory.
In the opposite case, emotion can actually help us to remember because emotional arousal promotes the process of memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is the process of memories becoming “cemented in place” because of the creation or alteration of neural connections. However, if the memory is interrupted from stress then there is no recall later on because the memory was never established, in an extreme case. This is why traumatic events are sometimes not remembered. Another reason that traumatic events are being forgotten is because they actually being repressed. Repressed memories are not consciously available but will still exist in long-term storage and may be recovered. In this study, the stressful event actually caused a useful mechanism to be forgotten.
The problem in the mices’ case comes from the brain inflammation from the macrophages from the immune response to the outside pressure. Specifically we are blaming glucocorticoids which is adrenaline and is secreted during stressful events, as you probably know. This hormone is either helpful or harmful in memory consolidation, as stated above, because emotional responses can either help us remember things or be a huge problem. The study (which was specifically focused on men) also found that there was a significant negative effect on digit-span task results and stress. Significantly fewer words were remembered when under the stressful condition further giving suggestion that working memory is negatively affected by stress. The test found that stress treatments caused impaired delay of memory retrieval and also found that adrenergic activation in the amygdala and hippocampus is required for glucocorticoids to impair retrieval. As we know, fMRI scans have shown heightened activity in the hippocampus when people indicate that they remember a particular test item, suggesting that the hippocampus is an important brain structure for memory.
So when you are extremely stressed out and trying to cram the night before for that exam you most likely will not do well, but, duh, we’ve been told that our entire lives. Perhaps we should finally listen (at least I should) and study a little bit each day instead of stressing out (and forgetting everything instantly) the night before.. As for more extreme cases, it is suggested that there are ways to interrupt the inflammation on the hippocampus. Through psychological or pharmacological interventions but more studies need to be conducted because the findings of the specific effects of glucocorticoids on memory is fairly new. As for us stressed out college students I think we should just practice better study tactics until they come out with a miracle memory pill.


1 thought on “Stress and Memory

  1. Daniel

    Interesting; I know for some people the stress factor can actually cause the opposite affect; I have seen some that when under extreme stress conditions can “focus” their actions and mind more. I don’t know if this is a learned skill or something more innate to personality.

    For me personally certain kinds of stress allow me to focus, and others de-focus me and can definitely have an negative effect on my memory. I imagine some would swing one way or the other mentally, either focusing, or de-focusing depending on the factor, or how they personally handle stress.

    It could also (as you said the studies focused on men) vary by gender as well, given that stress hormones can differ a great deal dependent on age and gender, among other factors.

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