Mental health disorders, in particular stress, anxiety, and depression, are a growing “crisis” on college campuses, according to the American Psychological Association. The collegiate system of learning offers students vast amounts of information, limited time to learn, and peer competition (in addition to social stressors), causing considerable mental strain. We’ve all felt this stress. With midterms, finals, and other interim assignments it can seem like a constant battle, but how is stress affecting our neurons?
While reading a review on depression by Duman and Aghajanian, I became aware that “stress causes neuronal atrophy and decreases synaptic density” (68). Experiencing stress could literally be affecting the way our brains are “wired”! In addition, stress can decrease the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. While these areas are associated with emotions, the hippocampus is also extremely important for learning and memory.
Learning is linked to neural plasticity, and if Seung is correct in saying that altering neuronal connections is what allows us to learn and remember, then how is stress affecting the learning process? A known side effect of anxiety and stress is altered memory function. Is there a link here? Is stress causing neuronal atrophy, which in turn causes memory loss? The point of college is to impart knowledge and promote learning. It seems ironic that the environment intended to optimize learning, is so stressful that it could be inhibiting learning. If this chain of events is true, how can we create a low-stress environment that allows for greater neuroplasticity and learning? Furthermore, where is the line between productive, motivational anxiety and neuronal atrophy? We must continue to search for the optimal learning environment.
Synaptic Dysfunction in Depression: Potential Therapeutic Targets by Duman & Aghajanian, 2012 link below!