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Byline: JOEL WOLCHOVER

STRESSED-OUT office workers are at risk of permanent brain damage, say scientists.

This is because, when we are under a lot of pressure, our brains react with raised chemical levels. It's now been discovered that these chemicals can irretrievably damage the DNA in our brain cells.

Workaholics are vulnerable to a similar type of "shell shock" to that which affects combat soldiers. Symptoms include feelings of anxiety, increased irritability, sleeplessness, nightmares, trouble concentrating, shaking, sweating and raised heartbeat.

Repeated exposure to stressful situations at work could even be linked to the degenerative brain condition Alzheimer's disease in old age.

The claim comes from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, where a dedicated team of experts has been looking at the effects of stress on Gulf War veterans.

Professor Idan Segev, head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Neural Computation, explains: "Research on Gulf War soldiers shows that exposure to stress can cause lasting damage months or even years after the stressful time has passed.

"I have seen bankers who work in the City of London who show the same symptoms of stress as combat soldiers. I worry about the lasting damage these young, healthy men and women might be doing by working at such an intense pace with no time to relax to let their brains function normally."

In a healthy brain, synapses use chemicals to send messages from one nerve cell to another. These chemicals produce tiny amounts of electricity.

Stress increases the chemical levels and research suggests that too much of this electricity can actually damage the cells' DNA - our fundamental genetic material.

The Israeli scientists believe the physical symptoms can last much longer than previously thought if we are exposed to extreme or repeated stressful situations.

Professor Hermona Soreq, who led the research team, says: "Sometimes we need some stress, it helps to keep the networks of brain cells functioning properly. …