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How Stress Breaks Down Your Short-term Memory

How Stress Breaks Down Your Short-term Memory

Short-term memory helps us to deal with large amounts of information. Stress destroys it.

Stress can be a very useful mechanism to improve our concentration, focus and power at certain moments. On the other hand, everybody also knows the feeling that, due to stress, one tends to be more forgetful and distracted in other tasks. You forget, for example, a short meeting with a colleague, or you don’t remember where you put your keys.

New research, published last week in PLOS Computational Biology, reveals how this is possible. It turns out that stress influences how our short-term memory works. This memory system, situated in the prefrontal cortex, helps us to temporarily remember large amounts of perceived information. It stores the first part of this sentence, so that you can finish reading it without forgetting the first half again. After one to one-an-a-half second, the information in the neurons is erased and replaced by something new that attracts our attention. It thus helps us to complete tasks that seem so simple: you can actually do them without thinking about it.

Communication and stimulation

Researchers Devilbiss, Jenison and Berridge found out that for neuron cells in the prefrontal cortex to keep this stored information ‘at hand’, they have to keep on firing and re-firing. Berridge explains: “Even though these neurons communicate on a scale of every thousandth of a second, they know what they did one second to one-and-a-half seconds ago. But if the neuron doesn’t stimulate itself again within a little more than a second, it’s lost that information.”

When stress was applied to test rats, the researchers found that this caused the neurons in the short-term memory to interrupt this firing cycle. In other words, the neurons stopped reminding themselves what they had to remember. This led the researchers to the conclusion that stress significantly impairs our short-term memory capacities and thereby turns us into entangled stress sufferers, looking for our keys while we try to remember what to bring from the grocery store.

Devilbiss D.M., Jenison R.L., Berridge C.W. (2012). Stress-Induced Impairment of a Working Memory Task: Role of Spiking Rate and Spiking History Predicted Discharge PLoS Comput Biol : doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002681

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  • Sierra
    March 11, 2013, 03:50

    Stress can also affect your physical body. Indirectly by not eating or sleeping and can mess with your attention span, concentration and memory. Direct affects of stress could be changing body functions resulting in symptoms, illness, and disease. The fight or flight response which happens when we feel threatened causes stress to us too. Even your immune system gets affected by stress. When you lose a loved one or face a stressful situation, your body’s system gets lower and you’re at a higher risk for health issues. So stress affects short-term memory and many other important factors.