Cortisol Effects on Memory

The steroid hormone cortisol--also known as the stress hormone--plays many important roles in our body. Stress causes our adrenal glands to release excess amounts of this hormone. Prolonged excessive amounts of cortisol result in a number of changes that can negatively impact our memory.

  1. Old and New Memories

    • According to the Franklin Institute, elevated cortisol levels can impact the formation of new memories and retrieval of old ones.

    Hippocampus

    • Excessive levels of cortisol affect the hippocampus--the primary part of the brain involved in learning and memory. High cortisol levels obstruct normal glucose delivery to the brain--the primary source of energy for all cells.

    Neurotransmitters

    • The institute also notes that in addition to interfering with the brain's energy supply, cortisol also impacts neurotransmitters. These chemicals facilitate communication between brain cells.

    Research

    • The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis conducted a study examining the relationship between high cortisol levels and memory impairment. The study consisted of 51 people receiving either a high dose of cortisol, a low dose or inactive substance. Those taking the highest dose suffered an impaired memory.

    Implications

    • According to lead researcher Dr. John W. Newcomer, the study showed that impairment did not manifest until four days into the cortisol treatments and it only affected those taking the highest dose. After one week off the treatments, tests revealed these participants regained their pre-treatment memory function. Newcomer states the results of this study suggest you would have to be exposed to very high levels of cortisol for a prolonged period to suffer any real damage and that this damage does not appear to permanently affect your memory.

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