Why acute stress makes it hard to think properly

October, 2012

A rat study indicates that acute stress disrupts feedback loops in the prefrontal cortex that may be keeping information alive in working memory.

Stress is a major cause of workplace accidents, and most of us are only too familiar with the effects of acute stress on our thinking. However, although the cognitive effects are only too clear, research has had little understanding of how stress has this effect. A new rat study sheds some light.

In the study, brain activity was monitored while five rats performed a working memory task during acute noise stress. Under these stressful conditions, the rats performed dramatically worse on their working memory task, with performance dropping from an average of 93% success to 65%.

The stress also significantly increased the discharge rate of a subset of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex during two phases of the task: planning and assessment.

This brain region is vital for working memory and executive functions such as goal maintenance and emotion regulation. The results suggest that the firing and re-firing of these neurons keeps recent information ‘fresh’. When the re-firing is delayed, the information can be lost.

What seems to be happening is that the stress is causing these neurons to work even more furiously, but instead of performing their normal task — concentrating on keeping important information ‘alive’ during brief delays — they are reacting to all the other, distracting and less relevant, stimuli.

The findings contradict the view that stress simply suppresses prefrontal cortex activity, and suggests a different approach to treatment, one that emphasizes shutting out distractions.

The findings are also exciting from a theoretical viewpoint, suggesting as they do that this excitatory recursive activity of neurons within the prefrontal cortex provide the neural substrate for working memory. That is, that we ‘hold’ information in the front of our mind through reverberating feedback loops within this network of neurons, that keep information alive during the approximately 1.5 seconds of our working memory ‘span’.