Unfortunately for all of us wanna-be genii, long-term estrogen therapy, once prescribed routinely as a treatment for symptoms of menopause, is in disrepute because of research showing it increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke.
However, new research from Northwestern Medicine may allow us to reap the benefits of estrogen without the risk.
Using a special compound, researchers were able to flip a switch in the brain that mimics the effect of estrogen on cortical brain cells. The scientists also discovered how estrogen physically works in brain cells to boost mental performance, which had not been known.
After flipping 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. “We are building more bridges so more information can go from one cell to another.”
In previous research on animals, an increase in dendritic spines resulted in improved mental performance.
“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.
And if we’re really lucky, they may be able to boost my personal complement of dendritic spines and I could start winning a few more of these Husband v Wife domestic arguments.