During menopause, women may experience a noticeable decline in some cognitive abilities, such as memory. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine are investigating this phenomenon, and whether drugs used to treat disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Attention Deficit (ADHD) might counteract the effect.
C. Neill Epperson, an associate professor in Perelman’s departments of Psychiatry and Obstetrics/Gynecology, and director of the Penn Center for Women's Behavioral Wellness, is particularly interested in the neurochemistry in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for high-level planning and memory. The interactions between the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone estrogen may be particularly relevant to menopausal women.
“Serotonin levels fall as people age, but when a women reaches menopause, her estrogen levels also drop, says Epperson. “So women get a double whammy, as estrogen supports serotonin function.”
With that mechanism in mind, Epperson and undergraduate Sheila Shanmugan recruited menopausal women to participate in a study that is testing how drugs used to treat conditions like ADHD might improve their cognitive abilities.
The women enrolled in the study participate in cognitive tests while their brains are scanned using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI. This kind of scan uses magnetic fields to monitor the flow of blood in the brain. Though the participants must lie still, they remain fully conscious so the researchers can ask them to do certain tasks and then monitor which parts of the brain receive the most blood. The researchers can then draw conclusions about which parts of the brain are working hardest on the task, and whether ADHD drugs have an effect.
One of the tests involves remembering a specific string of letters, then picking that string out again from a sequence of letter combinations. Another test asks women to identify the emotion displayed on a face briefly flashed on a screen.
“Some women going through the menopause transition experience problems with attention and memory, which fall into the cognitive category of ‘executive function,’” says Shanmugan. People with ADHD exhibit the same kinds of problems with executive function, she says. Replacing the hormones lost after menopause can protect against this cognitive decline. But not all women can take estrogen. Drugs used to treat ADHD could be a viable alternative.
Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig