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McGill researchers link estrogen levels, memory loss in younger women


July 12, 2006, In the first study to explore the role of estrogen in working memory function in premenopausal women, researchers at McGill University have documented a significant decrease in working memory among women whose estrogen levels were suppressed by chemicals, not age.

The prospective study, published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, monitored estrogen levels and working memory among 25 women between 25 and 40 years of age being treated for benign gynecological problems (fibroids, uterine polyps, endometriosis) in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the McGill University Health Centre. In the course of their regular treatment, these women were given leuprolide acetate depot (Lupron), a drug that chemically suppresses ovarian function and estrogen levels, inducing a form of premature, temporary menopause. Twenty-five healthy women were also tested twice in order to control for the possibility that repetition would influence scores on the tests.

This allowed former graduate student Dr. Miglena Grigorova, under the supervision of researcher Professor Barbara Sherwin of the McGill Department of Psychology, to study the effects of reduced estrogen on young women whose working memory function was normal and unaffected by aging. All previous studies have examined the effects of hormone therapy in postmenopausal women, thereby blurring brain aging with hormonal effects. Grigorova and Sherwin’s study isolated the estrogen-memory link in a younger population for the first time, and the subjects experienced a significant deterioration in performance on working memory tests after four weeks of estrogen suppression.

“What this shows is that working memory is affected by our estrogen levels no matter how old we are, and that one way to maintain working memory is to start taking estrogen around the time of menopause.” Sherwin cautioned, however, that these results should not be considered in isolation from other factors at play in the decision to prescribe estrogen therapy. “This study allowed us to distinguish between age-related decreases in working memory and hormone-related decreases,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve answered all questions about the risks or benefits of hormone therapy.”

This study was conducted with the help of funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.


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