Stress During Childhood Can Affect Short-Term Memory
New research has shown that stress can affect a child's development of short-term memory."
There has been a lot of work in animals linking both acute and chronic stress to changes in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex cognitive abilities like holding on to important information for quick recall and use," says Jamie Hanson, a UW-Madison psychology graduate student. "We have now found similar associations in humans, and found that more exposure to stress is related to more issues with certain kinds of cognitive processes."
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The researchers interviewed kids between the ages of 9 and 14 and their parents. Through the interviews and neurological scans, they found that kids exposed to more stress factors growing up had a smaller anterior cingulate, the part of the brain used for spatial working memory.
"Instead of focusing in on one specific type of stress, we tried to look at a range of stressors," said Hanson. "We wanted to know as much as we could, and then use all this information to later to get an idea of how challenging and chronic and intense each experience was for the child."
The amount of white and gray matter in these kids was also less.
White matter in the brain is essentially the wiring connecting different parts of the brain while the gray matter "takes care of the processing, using the information that gets shared along the white matter connections," according to Hanson
.Gray matter development is linked with flexibility and the ability to adapt and learn new situations.
However, early stressors in one's life may not be an irreversible factor.
"We're not trying to argue that stress permanently scars your brain. We don't know if and how it is that stress affects the brain," said Hanson.
"We only have a snapshot -- one MRI scan of each subject -- and at this point we don't understand whether this is just a delay in development or a lasting difference. It could be that, because the brains is very plastic, very able to change, that children who have experienced a great deal of stress catch up in these areas."