St. Louis, June 15, 1999 -- If it's been a really, really tough week at work and you can't remember where you put your car keys, it may be that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are interfering with your memory. In the June Archives of General Psychiatry, investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis provide the first direct evidence that several days of exposure to cortisol at levels associated with major physical or psychological stresses can have a signifcant negative effect on memory.
"We tested memory and other cognitive functions before treatment, after one day of treatment and again after four days, in individuals receiving either a high dose of cortisol, a lower dose or an inactive substance," explained lead author John W. Newcomer, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology. "We saw memory impairment only in the individuals treated with the higher dose and only after four days of exposure. The good news is it appears that it would take several days of stresses like major surgery or severe psychological trauma in order for cortisol to produce memory impairment. And after a one-week wash-out period, memory performance returned to the untreated levels."
Cortisol is produced in the body during stress. It belongs to a family of stress hormones called glucocorticoids that, among other actions, can interfere with energy supply to certain brain cells involved in memory. Newcomer's previous work showed that treatments with a synthetic glucocorticoid called dexamethasone impaired memory. But this is the first study to demonstrate that prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol--the hormone actually produced in the body in response to high stress-- has that same negative effect.
"The dexamethasone work came pretty close to telling the story of what
actually happens with large amounts of stress and high levels of cortisol,"
Newcomer said. "But this study more accurately re
Contact: Jim Dryden
Washington University School of Medicine