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The landmark Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS) program has had an enormous impact on our understanding of how estrogens and estrogen-containing hormone therapy affect cognitive outcomes in postmenopausal women. It is the starting point and touchstone for any discussion on cognition and dementia in women. As reviewed in this chapter by principal WHIMS program investigators, the WHIMS comprised two large randomized placebo-controlled trials of conjugated equine estrogens with and without medroxyprogesterone acetate in women aged 65 years and older. In this study, the two hormone therapy formulations were associated with increased risk for probable dementia (hazard ratio 1.77, 95% confidence interval 1.22 to 2.58). They were also associated with a small adverse mean difference of 0.21 (0.06 to 0.37) points on the 100-point Modified Mini-Mental State examination. Adverse findings were similar for both hormone therapy formulations and for women with and without histories of prior hormone therapy use. The Women's Health Initiative Study of Cognitive Aging and the Women's Health Initiative Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study were conducted on subsets of WHIMS participants. The former found little evidence that conjugated equine estrogens with medroxyprogesterone acetate had a positive effect on cognitive aging. The latter found that the hormone therapy formulations were associated with decreased brain volumes, particularly among women with lower levels of cognitive function at baseline, but mean effects on ischemic lesions were not significant. No subgroups of WHIMS participants have been identified for which initiating hormone therapy appears to convey cognitive benefit.
Brinton provides a comprehensive review of the effects of estradiol on glycolytic enzymes and glucose metabolism in the brain and in neurons. Her analysis reveals a large body of corroborating evidence converging on the conclusion that estradiol promotes enhanced utilization of glucose in the brain, thereby helping neurons to meet the energy demands of neuronal activation. Seeing as how dysfunction of glucose metabolism and neuronal biogenetics are antecedents to Alzheimer's disease (AD), it is reasonable to speculate how the effects of estrogens on glucose metabolism might help stave off the disease. Her studies show, however, that as neurons become compromised such as in the context of aging and/or disease, the effects of estrogens can become deleterious and ultimately lead to the activation of apoptotic pathways and neuronal death. Hence the hypothesis that as neurons age and become increasingly stressed or compromised, the net effect of estrogens on oxidative metabolism and neuronal survival shifts from positive to negative. This healthy cell bias may explain some of the recent negative clinical results, and in particular how estrogenic therapy administered around the time of the perimenopause can be beneficial whereas the same therapy administered late in life and in the context of a developing pathology could be detrimental and result in significant cognitive decline.
Casadesus and colleagues make a case that hormonal changes associated with the dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis following menopause/andropause are implicated in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Experimental support for this postulate has come from studies demonstrating an increase in amyloid-β (Aβ) deposition following ovariectomy/castration. Because sex steroids and gonadotropins are both part of the HPG feedback loop, decrements in sex steroids result in a proportionate increase in gonadotropins. They provide a review of the basic science relevant to luteinizing hormone (LH) and its receptor as a background for considering LH regulation of cognitive behaviors and AD pathology. Results of their analyses suggest that marked increases in serum LH following menopause/andropause is a physiologically relevant signal that could increase Aβ secretion and deposition in the aging brain. Suppression of the age-related increase in serum gonadotropins using anti-gonadotropin agents, such as leuprolide, is proposed as a novel therapeutic strategy for AD.
A decade ago, oestrogen-containing hormone therapy was viewed as a promising strategy for the prevention and treatment of dementia and age-related cognitive decline. However, treatment trials in women with Alzheimer's disease showed that oestrogens did not reverse cognitive impairment, and clinical trials in healthy older women indicated that oestrogens did not prevent cognitive decline. The Women's Health Initiative Memory Study trial even suggested an increased risk of dementia with treatment late in life. What happened? How are we to understand these findings? What are the implications for middle-aged and older women? What about testosterone, and what about men? And where do we go from here? This book brings together world-renowned experts in basic and clinical research on sex steroids, aging, and cognition to integrate existing findings with emerging new data, and offer challenging hypotheses on these key issues.
Estrogen-based therapies often include a progestin to antagonize tumorigenic effects of estrogens in the uterus. While much has been learned about the functional and neuroprotective effects of estrogens in the brain, far less is known about the effects of progestins, particularly specific progestins like progesterone and medroxy-progesterone acetate, used either alone or in combination with estrogenic therapies. In this chapter, Pike and Carroll review many of the effects on cell survival and function, first of estrogens, and then of progestins. While not all progestins are alike, the authors find that prolonged exposure to progestins often will decrease the protective effects of estradiol on cell survival and function. Evidence suggests that a cyclical regimen of estradiol and progesterone may be most efficacious. Ultimately, the development of neural selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) with the potential to circumvent the need for, and hence the negative neural consequences of, progesterone will be an important advance to estrogen-based therapies.
This chapter briefly reviews recent advancements in the search for a non-feminizing estrogen alternative that can mimic estrogen's positive effects on cognitive health without eliciting an undesirable impact on reproductive and cardiovascular systems. The discussion focuses on two avenues of translational development, tissue-selective and subtype-selective estrogen receptor (ER) modulators (SERMs), in particular ERβ-selective phytoSERMs as a natural approach for potentially promoting neurological health and preventing age-associated cognitive impairment and risk of Alzheimer's disease in both genders.
This chapter explains why two meta-analyses of treatment studies only found time-limited positive effects of estradiol in both women with and without dementia. The findings in women with dementia do not substantiate the “window of opportunity” theory. Negative effects of longer term treatment (>1 year) have also been reported in both women with and without dementia.
The meta-analyses reported that the most substantial effects of estradiol on cognition were seen in women who had undergone surgical menopause. Another large observational study found an increased risk for dementia when women had undergone surgical menopause. This chapter attempts to explain these findings by speculating that some women who are more at risk for medical indications for surgical menopause have particular genotypes implicated in sex steroid metabolism and synthesis. These genotypes expose these women to high estradiol levels. This may explain why these women show such strong responses to undergoing surgical menopause, as this induces a very sharp decline in their previously high estradiol levels. If these women also have genetic polymorphisms that predispose them to high levels of toxic estrogenic metabolites (such as catecholestrogens) this could lead to DNA damage. In the first instance that could lead to medical indications for surgical menopause, such as ovarian or endometrial cancer, endometriosis, cysts, etc. If these women are given estrogens at a later time in their lives, they might also be more susceptible to dementia, which has previously also been associated with DNA damage. The brain is apparently less able to compensate for this type of damage in later life, which could explain the more substantial negative effects on cognition and dementia risk found in the older women. Future genetic screening for these polymorphisms might allow more targeted treatment for those women who are not genetically at risk.
Few comparisons of the efficacy of different estrogenic formulations on brain function have been carried out. While most basic science studies have evaluated effects of estradiol, many of the clinical studies that have evaluated effects of hormone therapies (HT) in healthy older women have used conjugated equine estrogens (CEE). In this chapter, Gleason, Wharton, Carlsson, and Asthana review some of the cellular mechanisms by which estrogens are thought to protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease (AD), and discuss the pros and cons of oral vs. transdermal therapies and of estradiol vs. CEE. Their analysis identifies numerous advantages of transdermal estradiol vs. oral estrogenic therapies, primarily related to effects on liver enzymes, venus thromboembolic events, and inflammatory cytokines. Collectively, the analysis provides compelling arguments in favor of transdermal estradiol as the therapy of choice. Nevertheless, it is clear that the benefits of estradiol vs. CEE have yet to be proven, as has the efficacy of estrogenic therapies (ET) in the prevention of AD. These issues will be addressed in the recently initiated Kronos Early Estrogen Prevention Study (KEEPS) trial and the ancillary KEEPS study of cognitive aging. Details of the trial including its design and primary goals are discussed.
The extent to which testosterone and other androgens might affect cognitive skills in women is not yet well understood. In this chapter, Sherwin reviews changes in endogenous androgens over a woman's lifespan and research findings germane to androgens and cognitive skills in women. For younger women, there is evidence that cyclical changes during the menstrual cycle affect cognitive performance, although it is not possible to tease out effects of testosterone from those of estradiol. In older women, the relation between testosterone levels and cognitive test scores is inconsistent. The ratio of estradiol to testosterone may be important in modulating sex-advantaged cognitive functions in women, with a lower ratio leading to relatively impaired performance on cognitive tasks in which women typically excel.