New Study Shows Potential Link Between Stress, Memory Loss, and Brain Shrinkage

Thursday, 25 October 2018 - 12:50PM
Medical Tech
Neuroscience
Thursday, 25 October 2018 - 12:50PM
New Study Shows Potential Link Between Stress, Memory Loss, and Brain Shrinkage
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Composite from Pixabay
Ironically, telling someone that stress has the power to shrink their brain and cause memory loss (even at a young age!) seems like a surefire way to stress someone out. Nevertheless, a new study has found that sustained, high levels of cortisol (which is produced during stressful situations) can wreak havoc with the brain's internal structures and deprive it of nutrients, which may cause problems with things like memory. Though lifelong high stress may add up to mental disorders like dementia later in life, the study shows that it may not take that long to start feeling the effects.

The research drew on data from 2,000 participants, none of whom exhibited signs of dementia. Each participant was asked to take a variety of tests to assess their cognitive functioning, as well as take part in blood and MRI tests to (respectively) monitor the levels of cortisol in their body and the status of their brain. Interestingly, these participants are part of a long-term project called the Framingham Heart Study, which monitors and studies the health of the residents of a small town in Massachusetts over long periods of time.

According to one of the authors of the study, Dr. Sudha Seshadri: "Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size and performance on cognitive tests. We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen." It should be noted, however, that cortisol only seemed to cause brain shrinkage in women, potentially due to the influence of the hormone estrogen.

The link between cortisol and negative impacts on the brain may be due to the nature of our fight-or-flight stress response, which cortisol activates. According to Keith Fargo, the director of scientific programs at the Alzheimer's Association: "The brain is a very hungry organ. It requires an outsized amount of nutrients and oxygen to keep it healthy and functioning properly. So, when the body needs those resources to deal with stress, there's less to go around to the brain."

More research needs to be conducted to verify the relationship between cortisol, stress, and these effects on the brain, but Seshadri has some simple words of advice: "It's never too early to be mindful of reducing stress."
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