Estrogen May Boost Learning, Memory

First Posted: Dec 15, 2015 07:43 PM EST

Researchers at the University of Guelph found that adding estrogen to mouse brains helped the animals boost levels of short-term learning.

Previous studies have shown that the hippocampus--a small region of the brain primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation--responds positively to the hormone when it comes to learning and memory. In fact, an earlier study showed how mice given systemic injections of the hormone improved learning. Yet the new findings revealed that this is a "use-it-or-lose-it" process.

During the study, researchers recorded learning improvements within 40 minutes of injecting estrogen directly into specific regions of the hippocampus. Then, researchers assessed learning in mice by testing how readily they recognized other mice or objects.

Findings revealed increases in the number of spine synapses. As brain cells communicate by passing signals via long cell extensions, known as axons, to tiny spines on branches of adjacent neurons, this indicated signs of learning. However, researchers emphasized that the potential connections remain silent unless they are indeed used for learning. In other words, as co-author of the study and psychology professor at the university Elena Choleris put it, it really is a "use-it-or-lose-it" process. 

The findings are important for post-menopausal women or women whose ovaries have been removed due to medical reasons, but of course, more studies will be needed. While study results suggest that boosting estrogen levels could be helpful for these women, prior research has also shown that estrogen replacement therapy can increase cancer risk in some women.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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