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Hormones produced during chronic stress altered animal brain cells in ways that resemble aging, according to researchers at the University of Kentucky and the Bowman-Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The researchers dissected the brains of young, middle-aged and elderly rats after forcing some of the animals to shuttle rapidly along a plastic runway to avoid random electric shocks.The brains of the young and middle-aged rats showed decreases in neuron activity in rough proportion to their stress. The link didn't hold up in the older rats, probably because the same neuron loss had accompanied aging in both stressed and stress-free rats.

The findings, if confirmed in humans, suggest chronic stress could impair learning and memory and even affect performance over the long-term in high stress jobs, the researchers said. The research, supported by the National Institute on Aging, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.