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Psychology research finds factors for memory, learning, PTSD

ONU researchers are studying the effects of stress on memory and learning (photo/medicaljane.com).

For research psychologists, finding the cues to traumatic memory is important. That information can predict the likelihood of individuals getting PTSD and help protect people in traumatic situations, like soldiers or police officers. Phillip Zoladz and his student research assistants have come closer to finding these answers through research they are conducting on the ONU campus.

Senior psychology major Chelsea Cradle presented the findings of the studies last Tuesday afternoon to a room of interested peers and professors. What the studies uncovered proves the viability of psychological research, even if only on a university-wide scale. 

Her research focused on the effects of stress on learning. She conducted experiments in which subjects were put under stress (putting their hand in cold water), given information, and later asked to recall it. The experiments found that stress before a learning event enhances memory. 

The experiments also looked at genetics as a key to learning and memory. The researchers looked at one gene variant, ADRA2B, and studied its effects on the people who had it.  Compared with participants who didn’t have the ADRA2B variant, ones who did had better memory after being stressed.

Another important focus of the study was the sex of the participant. Females and males have largely been grouped together in memory studies, but Cradle explained that the model that relates stress and learning represents males better. 

Female participants were given the same recall test, only they were also asked which stage of their menstrual cycle they were in. Women with more progesterone in their system (in the luteal stage of their cycle) had better memory. In fact, their memory was just as good as women with the ADRA2B variant who weren’t in the luteal stage. 

So, these findings show that memory is affected by sex and by hormone levels, as well as by genetic factors. 

Research on this topic is expected to continue over the next three years on the ONU campus, thanks to a NIMH grant Zoladz just received. About the future of their research, Cradle said that they will continue to look at the effects of stress, timing, fear and genetics on learning and memory. Said Cradle, “There are so many others [genetic variants] that have the possibility of being biological markers of somebody who might be predisposed to acquire traumatic memory or PTSD development.” 

Finding those biological markers may be the key to preventing PTSD in people at risk. Zoladz’s continuing research aims to shine more light on these markers in an endeavor to contribute to the understanding of the scientific community on this serious issue.