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Stress-Induced Deficits in Working Memory and Visuo-Constructive Abilities in Special Operations Soldiers

      Background

      Pre-clinical and clinical studies have shown acute stress may impair working memory and visuo-spatial ability. This study was designed to clarify the nature of stress-induced cognitive deficits in soldiers and how such deficits may contribute to operational or battlefield errors.

      Methods

      One hundred eighty-four Special Operations warfighters enrolled in Survival School completed pre-stress measures of dissociation and trauma exposure. Subjects were randomized to one of three assessment groups (Pre-stress, Stress, Post-stress) and were administered the Rey Ostereith Complex Figure (ROCF). All subjects completed post-stress measures of dissociation.

      Results

      ROCF copy and recall were normal in the Pre- and Post-stress groups. ROCF copy and recall were significantly impaired in the Stress Group. Stress group ROCF copy performance was piecemeal, and ROCF recall was impaired. Symptoms of dissociation were negatively associated with ROCF recall in the Stress group. Baseline dissociation and history of traumatic stress predicted cognitive impairment during stress.

      Conclusions

      Stress exposure impaired visuo-spatial capacity and working memory. In rats, monkeys, and humans, high dopamine and NE turnover in the PFC induce deficits in cognition and spatial working memory. Improved understanding of stress-induced cognitive deficits may assist in identification of soldiers at risk and lead to the development of better countermeasures.

      Key Words

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