Grace under pressure: U of S researcher studies the effects of stress on learning and memory

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - June 4, 2013 SASKATOON - In John Howland's lab, a lot of effort has gone into entertaining rats and putting them to work - all the better to understand how stress affects memory making and thinking.

"What we're interested in is looking at how memory might be disrupted under certain conditions," explained Howland of the Neural Systems and Plasticity Research Group in the College of Medicine. "Stress has complex effects - it can facilitate or impair memory and cognition."
Howland was awarded $70,000 this year from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to continue his team's work to find out how the brain adapts to changing circumstances to better understand its executive functions like working memory, planning, attention, problem solving and reasoning.
The rats in question spend their work days in boxes that resemble mini video theatres, complete with small screens. They learn to touch the screen when they see "image A" to get a food reward, while touching "image B" gives them nothing. Once they've mastered the task, the researchers switch it up so that image B now gives the reward - and they add a stressor.
"What we've found is if you give the stress right before you ask them to change the contingency to go from A to B, it actually improves performance," Howland said. "It's like an exam. You need to be a little scared of the exam. That's when you perform your best."
While the extra stress may give the rats an edge, it does not necessarily mean the knowledge will make it into long-term memory.
"You learned something yesterday, but it doesn't really matter today because you just experienced more stress. It's a totally different world now. You're much more interested in what you have to do to get out of the stressful situation, not what happened yesterday, so you've suppressed that memory," Howland says.
He hopes his work will provide insights into the mechanisms the brain uses to think and create memories, both in normal and challenging circumstances.
Howland was one of 53 U of S researchers who together were awarded more than $1.6 million recently from NSERC through their Discovery grants program. The funding backs a range of projects seeking to expand knowledge in reproductive science, information processing, plant immune systems, and better ways to strengthen concrete, to name just a few.
For more information, contact:
Jennifer Thoma
Media Relations
University of Saskatchewan
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