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Stress may be killing law students’ brain cells, law prof says

Posted Jun 18, 2014 5:45 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Law students take note: Rats that spend time on a running wheel generate twice the new brain cells as those that are sedentary.

And that is one reason why exercise is so important, according to University of Denver law professor Debra Austin, who wrote about stress and the brain in the Loyola Law Review. Stress associated with law school and the practice of law is taking a tremendous toll on cognitive capacity, Austin says.

“Stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition,” she writes in the article (PDF).

Stress can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and suicide, Austin says. What’s more, “Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity.”

Law schools should look to perks offered by innovative companies such as Google, Whole Foods Market and Cisco systems, Austin says. “Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching promote cognitive health and produce vibrant workplaces and thriving employees.”

Austin says law students can take matters into their own hands by exercising more, getting more sleep and engaging in contemplative practices such as a mindfulness and meditation. “Replacing less healthful activities such as cocktail hour, playing video games, or watching television could yield the time law students and lawyers require to optimize cognitive performance,” Austin says.

She also encourages law professors to do their part. “Professors who do not understand the neuroscience of cognitive wellness may unwittingly be causing their own disappointment in student performance by conducting classes under stressful conditions or supporting policies that engender stress-saturated law school cultures,” Austin says.

Hat tip to TaxProf Blog.

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