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Why Estrogen Makes You Smarter

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 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.

When scientists activated an estrogen receptor, they witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of dendritic spines, the 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 neuroscience at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We are building more bridges so more information can go from one cell to another.”

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

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.