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Feature

Marissa Boulware.

Marissa Boulware, University of Minnesota neuroscience graduate student.

University researchers discover novel way estrogen affects the brain

Hormone affects females, males differently

Published on May 27, 2005

"Every day post-menopausal women face the dilemma of taking estrogens to improve their cognitive abilities, knowing it may pose a potential heath risk," says Marissa Boulware, a University of Minnesota neuroscience graduate student. "By better understanding how estrogen acts upon our brain, one day we may develop novel therapies using non-steroidal drugs to mimic the specific actions of estrogen on processes related to learning and memory, affording the cognitive benefits of estrogen without any detrimental side effects."

Boulware and her colleagues performed studies that demonstrated how estrogen affects learning and memory. They found that estrogen can activate particular glutamate receptors within the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for many aspects of learning and memory.

Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, allowing for fast communication between neurons. By examining hippocampal neurons from rats, researchers also observed that estrogen only activated the processes related to learning and memory in the brains of female rats and not males. While it has been well documented that estrogen influences other behaviors beyond reproduction, including learning and memory, the mechanism has remained elusive. The findings of this research were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

"We believe this is an important first step in understanding not just how estrogen affects learning and memory, but also a variety of non-reproductive behaviors," says Paul Mermelstein, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota and lead researcher. "Estrogen activation of glutamate receptors within other brain regions could also potentially account for the well-documented actions of this hormone on female motor control and pain sensation."

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.