Sunday, March 18, 2001

Researchers find a link to estrogen

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Researchers at the University of Kentucky discovered more than two years ago that the estrogen produced by a woman's ovaries plays an important role in protecting the brain.

        Now, they have found a critical link in understanding exactly how that estrogen — called estradiol — helps to keep the brain safe from stroke and other age-related brain conditions.

        An estrogen receptor, called ER-alpha, must be present in the brain for the estrogen hormone to display its protective effect, said Phyllis Wise, professor and chair of physiology at UK's College of Medicine.

        Results of the study, conducted by Ms. Wise and Dena Dubal, a graduate student in the physiology department's M.D./Ph.D. program, were published last month in the publication “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

        Research at other institutions also has shown that estrogen may actually improve cognition as well as serve as a protective agent against Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and ALS, Ms. Wise said.

        Estrogen production drops dramatically after menopause, which usually occurs in women between the ages of 45 and 55.

        With more women now living to age 80 and beyond, increased numbers become at higher risk of stroke and other age-related conditions that estrogen may help protect against.

        “Earlier in history, this research wouldn't have been that important because women were only living to be 50 or slightly older,” Ms. Dubal said. “Now, women are spending as much as a third of their lives in this post-menopausal state and no longer have the estrogen in their bodies to protect them.

        “What we're learning now is what the repercussions are if estrogen is not in the body. Our focus of study here is what happens to the brain without estrogen, specifically regarding injury caused by stroke.”

        She found that the rats given supplemental estrogen had far less brain damage than those not given the hormone supplement.

        “We've found that even very low levels of this natural hormone estrogen dramatically protect the brain.” Ms. Dubal said.

        “Now we're working on exactly how it does that. If we understand how it does that, then we can help older women lead a better quality of life.”

        The research may someday lead to the production of an estrogen-like drug with the same protective powers as estrogen.


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