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Stress Is Good for You, After All: It Improves Brain Function and Memory

Update Date: Apr 17, 2013 02:45 PM EDT

Stress is often seen as a bad thing. In times of extreme and chronic duress, it's true that some people can develop post-traumatic stress disorder or develop conditions like high blood pressure, chronic obesity and depression. However, according to a recent study, some stress is good for you. The researchers say that acute stress can improve the brain's mental capacity and memory.

The findings "in general, reinforce the notion that stress hormones help an animal adapt - after all, remembering the place where something stressful happened is beneficial to deal with future situations in the same place," Bruce McEwen, the chief of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, who was not involved with the study, said.

The study was conducted using rats. Researchers rendered the rats immobile in their cages for a short time - an experience that causes rats to become extremely stressed for a few hours. The stress caused the rats to create new brain cells in the dorsal dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for functions like memory - double the amount that they normally would. Two weeks after the stressful event, the rats performed better on a memory test, thanks to their new brain cells.

"In terms of survival, the nerve cell proliferation doesn't help you immediately after the stress, because it takes time for the cells to become mature, functioning neurons," study author Daniela Kaufer said in a statement. "But in the natural environment, where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat...I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert."

The researchers note that stress can improve your performance, but not if there is too much of it.

The study was published in the journal eLife.

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