Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Some brain effects of stress may be reversible

Stress impairs function in the brain's prefrontal cortex, possibly causing problems such as difficulty thinking creatively, solving problems, or shifting attention, according to a study by researchers at the University of Oregon.

Earlier research in rats exposed to stress demonstrated reduced numbers of nerve cell connections in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as making decisions or thinking abstractly. To test whether this animal model is relevant to human neurobiology, the researchers recruited 20 healthy medical students who were preparing for a major exam and a group of age-matched controls who were not studying for exams.

Using a validated 10-item scale called the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale, the researchers measured stress levels in the medical students and in the controls. While undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan, all participants performed a task that required them to shift attention between an object's color and its movements.

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