Stress and Impact on Memory

It is always said that stress is not good. However, a new study shows that a little stress here and there might actually help short-term memory in the long run. The research from neuroscientists at the University of Georgia (UGA) said that stress could have a beneficial effect on a person’s working memory at relatively low and moderate levels.


In the study involving more than 1,200 healthy young adults, the participants performed a memory test based on recognizing certain tools and faces. All the while, their brains were being scanned. The researchers found that those participants who reported higher levels of stress on a questionnaire showed less activity in the area of their brains responsible for short-term memories, also known as working memory.

Meanwhile, those who experienced only low to moderate levels of stress showed elevated working memory activation in their brains. What’s more, this activity coincided with better performance on the memory test.

The results do not directly test stress levels or whether stress impacts working memory, but they do provide preliminary evidence to suggest a link is at play.

In 2006, a study among just 20 healthy adults found that psychosocial stress can impair working memory, but only when levels of stress are relatively high. If they are lower, then no effect is seen.

The findings suggest environmental stress is not always harmful to the functioning of our brains. However, some scientists say that it might be in some low levels.

When adult rats are put under chronic mild stress, for instance, some studies show they have improved working memory. “Based on this hypothesis, preconditioning underlies an inoculation phase in which the organism is cued to reorganize, prepare, and behaviorally cope with subsequent stress more effectively,” Assaf Oshri, a psychology researcher a UGA, and colleagues write.

“We hope that future longitudinal studies can further our understanding of how hormesis may underlie the development of adaptation to stress and potentially resilience among individuals living in stressful environments.”

The study was published in Neuropsychologia.


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