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Home > Research Articles > Stress hormone linked to memory, study says

Globeandmail.com

Saturday, October 05, 2002

By INGRID PERITZ

Thursday, October 3, 2002 – Page A9

MONTREAL

Scientists at McGill University found that by tinkering with the stress hormone cortisol in some elderly patients, they could directly affect the patients' memories.

"It was amazing," psychiatry professor Sonia Lupien said yesterday.

"This kind of thing is very difficult to prove in terms of science."

The findings were published in the August issue of the publication Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Dr. Lupien and her colleagues studied two groups of patients aged 65 to 80 who had already been tracked for five years.

Then the researchers used drugs to first lower and then restore the patients' cortisol levels.

The seniors with high cortisol levels combined with impaired memory experienced no change when the hormone was blocked, and their memory was even worse when their cortisol levels were restored.

The seniors with moderate cortisol levels, however, experienced memory impairment when their cortisol levels were lowered, and their memories returned to normal when the hormone was restored.

"It showed that I could modulate memory," Dr. Lupien said of the findings.

"We can move memory up and down with changes in this hormone."

The key will be catching patients before they've reached the point of no return, Dr. Lupien said. Some people have no hope of reversing memory loss, while others could get treatment in time to lower their cortisol levels.

"Theoretically, we could reverse [memory loss] if it's not too late," she said.

Studies have already shown that high levels of cortisol, which helps the body deal with stress, can shrink part of the brain called the hippocampus.

That shrinkage can, in turn, cause memory loss.

Dr. Lupien hopes patients will one day be able to get a blood test to measure their cortisol levels the way they get a cholesterol test today.

Then, those at risk could take medication.