Stress Hinders Thinking, But a Drug Might Help

The blood pressure medicine propranolol eases anxiety-linked confusion, study found

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FRIDAY, Nov. 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New science appears to support a phenomenon most people have long understood: That the ability to think clearly declines as stress levels rise.

But there's pharmacological hope in getting around the problem, too. A second study found that the beta-blocker medication propranolol can help counter stress' effects on rational thought.

In the first study, researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center showed volunteers two different kinds of movies -- a war movie (Saving Private Ryan) and an animated comedy (Shrek) -- and then asked them to do problem-solving tests.

The volunteers' performance on the tests was much worse after watching the war movie than after watching the animated comedy, the investigators reported.

They believe the finding may help improve the understanding of the range of effects that stress can have on thinking and help in the development of treatments for people with anxiety disorders or substance-abuse problems.

In a related study, the same team found that propranolol may help modify the negative effects of stress on flexible thinking in healthy people with no history of anxiety disorders. Propranolol is used to treat a variety of disorders, including high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, migraines, and panic attacks.

The findings were presented Wednesday in Washington, D.C. at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Both studies were funded by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Center of Research Resources.

Both studies focused on activity in the noradrenergic system, located at the base of the brain. This system contains neurons that affect states of arousal associated with stress. This state of arousal results from the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine, which can be blocked by propranolol.

"Essentially, we propose that this state of arousal resulting from stress inhibits a person's ability to access mental resources to solve problems in a flexible manner under stressful circumstances, and that a specific system in the brain may be responsible for that effect," neurologist David Beversdorf, senior author of the studies, said in a prepared statement.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about stress.

SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, Nov. 16, 2005

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