Cumulative Stress

A Stanford neuroscientist is presenting evidence of how chronic stress physically damages a region of the brain that processes learning and memory. His study is among the first to document actual physical injury from psychological triggers over which we often have no control.

The natural hormones, released during unrelenting anxiety, damage what is called the hippocampus area of the brain.

With a lot of hippocampal damage, Dr. Robert Sapolsky says patients will suffer massive memory loss. He says it's probably the most sensitive to stress hormones.

Dr. Sapolsky unfolded Stanford's research for faculty and students at the University of Utah. He says studies of wild baboon colonies in East Africa show body hormones do well for those temporary three minute fight or flight escapes, but not so well if they're never turned off.

In the brains of baboons and humans, studies show the damage can become permanent.

Dr. Sapolsky says these syndromes of long-term, big time depression damage the hippocampus like 30 years of post-traumatic stress after Vietnam. Damaging the hippocampus, as far as doctors can tell, are not reversible.

His lab is now working on possible genetic therapies, which might help those more vulnerable to stress.

Those treatments could include genetic compounds that might provide sensitive brain neurons with a protective coat, or that might be activated only when stress is piled on.