Stress and Cognition Research Group

PHD Candidate Robyn Human

Historically, engineers first used the term “stress” to describe forces that can put strain on a structure. More recently, the term has evolved to describe absolute and relative experiences that can trigger a set of predictable and discrete physiological responses in an organism. Our research group aims to explore the effects of acute and long-term stress on different forms of memory and on spatial cognition.

One aspect of our research programme is methodological. Because existing laboratory-based psychosocial stressors are known to have uneven effects, and to be more likely to provoke a stress response in men than in women, we are engaged in studies that seek to modify and refine those stressors. Hence, these studies aim to design laboratory-based acute psychosocial stressors that (a) produce robust, consistent, and long-lasting elevations in cortisol (a stress hormone), and (b) provoke these effects in both men and women.

A second aspect of our research programme is theoretical. That is to say, we use the methods described above to refine and develop theories about how disrupted physiological mechanisms (e.g., over-activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and consequent chronic elevation of cortisol) are associated with changes in cognitive processing (e.g., poor performance on declarative memory tasks). To date, we have completed studies examining: the effects of acute psychosocial stress on working memory, on false memory, and on visuospatial information processing; the effects of childhood exposure to traumatic events on adolescent cognitive functioning; and the relationship between lifetime exposure to stress and risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.


Assoc. Professor Kevin Thomas

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