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Why holiday travel makes you dumb

Disrupting the circadian rhythm of hamsters, researchers found, impacted their ability to learn — for a month. Is the same true of humans?
/ Source: Forbes

Feeling like a hamster on a wheel this holiday season? If so, you’ll likely relate to those recently tested for travel side effects by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley. According to their research, the impacts of jet lag — memory loss and learning problems — may alter your brain’s structure long after you unpack.

In the study, female hamsters were subjected to six-hour time shifts that mimicked a flight from New York to Paris. Like people, hamsters follow precise circadian rhythms, so changes in time will similarly throw off their internal clocks. In the jet lag period immediately following the time difference, they had trouble learning simple tasks that a control group easily mastered. Incredibly, these learning difficulties continued for the next month.

The researchers now believe that frequent travelers suffer physical changes to their brains due to chronic jet lag. The jet-lagged hamsters showed a drastic drop in neuron production in the hippocampus area of the brain, which closely contributes to memory processing and learning.

“This is the first time anyone has done a controlled trial of the effects of jet lag on brain and memory function,” said lead researcher Lance Kriegsfeld, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Not only do we find that cognitive function is impaired during jet lag, but we see an impact up to a month afterward.”

Those planning on flying this holiday may experience short-term side effects from fatigue and increased cortisol levels, the report details. Permanent damage, however, may occur among jet-setters and frequent travelers like flight attendants, who have been found to experience higher instances of memory loss, diabetes and heart disease.

When traveling, Kriegsfield suggests allowing one day of rest per time zone crossed in order to get your brain back to its full potential.

(Disclosure: This story was written under the influence of jet lag; an 11-hour flight from Honolulu to New York may have caused temporary brain damage to its author, potentially leading to typos and/or unclear sentences.)