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You 101: Why You Get Forgetful When Stressed

I hope I'm not alone when it comes to finding myself overstressed, overtired and absurdly forgetful. I've actually hung up the phone and been unable to remember, moments later, who I was talking with or what was discussed. I once found the handset in my refrigerator -- kid you not. I've made lists to help keep it together and promptly been unable to find said lists. This frustrates other people, who presume I'm a little kooky or careless, which I'm not, of course, and I can get pretty frustrated at myself. But guess what? I'm not to blame, an enzyme is.

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Turns out that acute or chronic stress can impair short-term memory. While the riddle isn't entirely solved, it appears that neurons in the hippocampus -- the part of the brain responsible for memories that involve people, places, and events -- are altered by stress.

An enzyme called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, might be the cause, according to scientists at Rockefeller University. Interestingly enough, changes caused by tPA in the brain might actually be protecting it from more permanent damage by slowing down our cognitive abilities.

It's hoped this research will begin to shed light on serious stress-related illnesses, like PTSD. For those of us struggling with the daily accumulation of major stress, like caring for a sick child or an elderly parent, a job loss, a death or other emotional crises, there's some good news. The scientists report that these effects are largely "reversible [when] you terminate the stress."

Having this information helps me be more patient with myself, and it's a nice fact to have handy when others ramp up the judgement, too. Oh, and happy Brain Awareness Week, ladies. Betcha didn't know there was such a thing.


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