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Most women who have gone through menopause can relate to forgetting a word, even one they have used every day, or having problems solving simple problems. Many women also report feeling this way before or during their period. It has long been suggested that low levels of estrogen are to blame. But scientists at the Concordia University in Montreal are looking at it differently. It might be that at different times during the menstrual cycle, we use different brain processes more effectively.
We know that estrogen levels fall drastically during menopause and for that reason it is associated with some of the memory and cognitive issues that many women experience during perimenopause and menopause. But several studies, according to PatientEducationCenter.org, have shown that estrogen therapy doesn’t help improve memory or cognitive skills; therefore, they believe that maintaining estrogen levels, at least alone, does not help preserve memory.
Researchers at the Concordia University looked at how women completed different memory tasks at different times during the month. First, the participants completed questionnaires that gave the researchers detailed information on their periods, past pregnancies, contraceptive use, and synthetic hormone intake. This allowed the scientists to determine where in the menstrual cycle each woman was during the testing.
The women were given two tasks — a verbal memory task, such as remembering a list of words and a virtual navigation task, such as finding their way through a maze in a video game. Women did better on one task or the other depending on whether they were ovulating or whether they were in the pre-period stage. Those who were ovulating did better on the verbal memory test. Those in the pre-menstrual phase did better in solving the navigation task.
The scientists believe this shows that women switch brain processes and strategies depending on where they are in their monthly cycle. Hormonal cycles dictated which strategies the women used when approaching problem solving and different cognitive skills were more effective at different points in the menstrual cycle. Previous research has shown that female rats do the same thing — when estrogen levels are high they use one strategy to get through a maze. When estrogen levels are lower, they switch to a different strategy.
The research didn’t fully explain the role of estrogen and other hormones play in memory, cognitive skills and problem solving, for example, are estrogen levels the main driving force or do hormones such as progesterone and estrogen play a role as well? But the research does clearly show that hormonal fluctuations have a definitive role in how women use their brains. Dema Hussain, the study’s lead author, believes this information will help in many ways, including, for example, how male brains are used mostly in research for developing drugs and treatments for the general public. But this study highlights that women’s brains function differently and may respond differently to medications and treatments.
Henderson VW, John JA, Hodis H, et al. Cognition, mood, and physiological concentrations of sex hormones in the early and late postmenopause. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1312353110
Gleason CE, Dowling NM, Wharton A, et al. Effects of Hormone Therapy on Cognition and Mood in Recently Postmenopausal Women: Findings from the Randomized, Controlled KEEPS-Cognitive and Affective Stud. PLoS Med. DOI:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001833
Hussain D, Hanafi S, Konishi, K. Modulation of spatial and response strategies by phase of the menstrual cycle in women tested in a virtual navigation task. Psychoneuroendocrinology DOI:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.05.008
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.