Effects of Stress on Memory

Stress hormones and memory

The relation between stress and memory

Stress hormones carry a message that tells other cells in our body what to do. The first receivers of these messages are stress hormone receptors. In addition, there are stress hormone receptors pretty much everywhere in our body, including the brain.

Interestingly, the very brain areas that are responsible for our learning and memory functions have the greatest number of stress hormone receptors. We always have to keep in mind what our stress response system was initially designed for: to help to ensure our survival.

The stress response system does this in several ways (i.e. making sure we have enough energy to fight or flee in the face of a threatening situation), but it also helps up to remember relevant details about these situations so that we can avoid them in the future or be better equipped to deal with them a second time.

For instance, if we had taken a different route back from the mammoth hunt and ended up in saber tooth tiger territory (and managed to escape), we would need to remember the location of this territory and the methods we used to get away. We managed to do this through the action of stress hormones in brain areas critical for learning and memory. Beautifully said!

In humans, three of the most important learning and memory regions are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. Each of these brain areas is highly specialized for specific types of memory processing.

The hippocampus for instance is involved in spatial memory (i.e. where the saber tooth tiger attack took place), the amygdala is involved in emotional memory (i.e. the fear we felt at the time of the attack that resulted in the release of stress hormones), and the prefrontal cortex helps us to evaluate the situation in order to make decisions about how to act (i.e. pay attention to only the relevant details -tiger- and decide where to throw our spear).

These brain areas are all interconnected and talk to each other through several relay systems.