Why estrogen makes you smarter

November 17, 2010, Northwestern University

Estrogen is an elixir for the brain, sharpening mental performance in humans and animals and showing promise as a treatment for disorders of the brain such as Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. But long-term estrogen therapy, once prescribed routinely for menopausal women, now is quite controversial because of research showing it increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Northwestern Medicine researchers have discovered how to reap the benefits of without the risk. Using a special compound, they flipped a switch that mimics the effect of estrogen on cortical . The scientists also found how estrogen physically works in brain cells to boost mental performance, which had not been known.

When scientists flipped the switch, technically known as activating an estrogen receptor, they witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of connections between brains cells, or neurons. Those connections, called dendritic spines, are tiny bridges that enable the brain cells to talk to each other.

"We created more sites that could allow for more communication between the cells," said lead investigator Deepak Srivastava, research assistant professor in at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "We are building more bridges so more information can go from one cell to another."

The findings will be presented Nov. 17 at Neuroscience 2010 in San Diego. Peter Penzes, associate professor of physiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School, is the senior investigator.

Previous research has shown an increase in dendritic spines improves mental performance in animals. In humans, people who have Alzheimer's disease or often have a decrease in these spines.

"We think there is a strong link between the number of dendritic spines and your mental performance," Srivastava said. "A major theory is if you increase the number of spines, it could be a way to treat these significant mental illnesses. "

Northwestern scientists also found strong clues that estrogen can be produced in cortical brain cells. They identified aromatase, a critical protein needed to produce estrogen, to be in precisely the right spot in the brain cell to make more dendritic spines.

"We've found that the machinery needed to make estrogen in these brain cells is near the dendritic spines," Srivastava said. "It's exactly where it's needed. There's a lot of it in the right place at the right time. "

Next, Srivastava said, he wants to further identify the key molecules involved in the dendritic spine production and target them in the same way as the estrogen receptor in order to ultimately be able to treat schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

Nick Brandon, head of psychiatry at Pfizer Inc., whose group collaborated with the Penzes lab for this work, added, "We are very excited by the emerging data in this area. There is a great deal of literature and precedent for a role of estrogen and estrogen signaling in major mental illnesses. This adds to our understanding of the specific neuronal functions. As we understand the effects of these specific beta compounds in preclinical models, we are discovering effects on specific neuronal functions, which could be relevant for the treatment of cognitive disorders, depression and schizophrenia. "

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.