August 2, 2011
Science Daily/University of Bristol
Researchers have discovered a mechanism in the brain that explains for the first time why people make particularly strong, long-lasting memories of stressful events in their lives.
The research found that stress hormones directly stimulate biochemical processes in neurons that play a role in learning and memory. The way these hormones stimulate these signalling and epigenetic processes in neurons is completely new and has never been shown before.
In the healthy brain these processes operate smoothly and help people to cope with and learn from stressful events in their lives. In vulnerable people or in strongly traumatized people (victims of rape or war), these processes may be disturbed and stressful events may result in the formation of highly traumatic memories such as those seen in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The discovery may lead to new ways to develop drugs to help these patients and to prevent PTSD in trauma victims.
It is well known that people make very strong memories of stressful, emotionally disturbing events in their lives. These so-called episodic memories are memories of the place (e.g. room, office) or surroundings where the event happened, how we felt at the time (mood), and the time of the day at which it happened. These kinds of memories can last a lifetime.
The consolidation of such memories is taking place in a specific limbic brain region called the hippocampus -- part of the brain involved in memory and learning. Hormones secreted during stress like the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol (in rodents, corticosterone) act on the hippocampus to enhance the consolidation of these memories. However, until now it has been unknown how these hormones act on the hippocampus to enhance the formation of emotional event-related memories.