Last-minute exam stress can actually help students to form stronger memoriesBy Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 9:51 AM on 3rd May 2011
It runs counter to all the received wisdom about revision. But scientists say last-minute cramming could actually be better than spending months swotting up for exams.
According to research, hormones produced under stress cause changes to our brain cells that can help memories to be stored more efficiently.
Stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline alter the way genes inside neurons function, enhancing their learning ability, researchers have discovered.
Cortisol and adrenaline appear to boost a mechanism known as epigenetic modification that 'reprograms' neural DNA, he said, increasing or decreasing the expression of certain genes.
We often find that unpleasant memories are the ones that stay with us for the rest of our lives more than pleasant memories,' he told The Daily Telegraph.
'This is because of the role that stress plays – it is clearly important from a biological point of view to remember something that hurt or threatened us.'
As a result, stress enhances the process that is normally taking place when people learn, he added.
This enhanced learning caused by increased levels of stress consolidates the formation of memories in the hippocampus - the part of our brains directly involved with memory and learning.
Professor Reul's team have speculated that this reprogramming of the genes in the brain helps nerve cells to grow and develop larger networks.
Cortisol and adrenaline are essential components of humans' 'fight or flight' mechanism - the neuro-biological response to stressful situations that has evolved through millions of years.
At moments of stress these hormones flood the bloodstream, raising blood-sugar levels to speed up the metabolism and provide a burst of energy.
This mechanism would have helped ancient man to escape from or prevail in dangerous situations.
The action of these hormones on brain activity would have also helped to forge strong memories warning them to avoid similar situations in the future.
But too much stress is still bad news, with Professor Seul revealing that in extreme situations it is not possible to pick up new information.
He said that the brain goes into an override mode and so the memory formation is not efficient.
Professor Reul's findings's were presented in the journal Experimental Neurology and at the annual conference of the British Neuroscience Association.
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