Stressful situations interfere with mental agility, according to findings presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC.
Dr. David Beversdorf and colleagues at the Ohio State University in Columbus exposed volunteer subjects to stressful situations, such as public speaking and watching a graphically violent and emotional movie. Compared with non-stressful tasks, such as watching a cartoon or reading aloud, the stressful situations impaired subjects’ ability to perform word association tasks and solve anagrams.
However, responses to memory tests were not affected. Moreover, when subjects took a beta-blocker - a heart drug usually used to lower blood pressure - prior to the stressful situation, their responses to tests of cognitive flexibility were not altered.
It’s known that people prone to stress or anxiety benefit from a beta-blocker in stressful situations, “but the people we looked at did not have a history of any anxiety disorder, suggesting that the stress response is fundamental to the human thought process,” said Beversdorf.
These findings may have practical applications, the researcher noted.
“There are populations in which stress creates a major problems; one is individuals undergoing cocaine withdrawal,” Beversdorf continued. Such people also have impaired problem solving difficulties, so a beta-blocker “may have a role in cocaine withdrawal.”
“Other conditions, in which there is an increased response to stress or elevated norepinephrine in the brain or even anatomical inflexibility as may occur with autism, are all possible avenues for further investigation,” he added.
Revision date: July 3, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD