Does stress damage the brain?

Biol Psychiatry. 1999 Apr 1;45(7):797-805. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(99)00009-8.


Studies in animals showed that stress results in damage to the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory, with associated memory deficits. The mechanism involves glucocorticoids and possibly serotonin acting through excitatory amino acids to mediate hippocampal atrophy. Patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Vietnam combat and childhood abuse had deficits on neuropsychological measures that have been validated as probes of hippocampal function. In addition, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed reduction in volume of the hippocampus in both combat veterans and victims of childhood abuse. In combat veterans, hippocampal volume reduction was correlated with deficits in verbal memory on neuropsychological testing. These studies introduce the possibility that experiences in the form of traumatic stressors can have long-term effects on the structure and function of the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Hippocampus* / pathology
  • Hippocampus* / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Life Change Events*
  • Memory Disorders / etiology
  • Memory Disorders / pathology
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic* / complications
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic* / pathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic* / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology


  • Hydrocortisone