By Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on November 19, 2010
As many people know, estrogen hormones express a yin and yang effect for women.
New research suggests a method by which the beneficial characteristics may be evoked without detrimental risk.
For decades, scientists have realized that estrogen sharpens mental performance and has promise as a treatment for disorders of the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. However, long-term estrogen therapy, once prescribed routinely for menopausal women, is now believed by many to increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Northwestern Medicine researchers say they have discovered how to reap the benefits of estrogen without the risk.
Using a special compound, they flipped a switch that mimics the effect of estrogen on cortical brain cells. 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 — 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, Ph.D.
“We are building more bridges so more information can go from one cell to another.”