The human menopause transition and aging are each associated with an increase in a variety of health risk factors including, but not limited to, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes, stroke, sexual dysfunction, affective disorders, sleep disturbances, and cognitive decline. It is often challenging to systematically evaluate the biological underpinnings associated with the menopause transition in the human population. For this reason, rodent models have been invaluable tools for studying the impact of gonadal hormone fluctuations and eventual decline on a variety of body systems. While it is essential to keep in mind that some of the mechanisms associated with aging and the transition into a reproductively senescent state can differ when translating from one species to another, animal models provide researchers with opportunities to gain a fundamental understanding of the key elements underlying reproduction and aging processes, paving the way to explore novel pathways for intervention associated with known health risks. Here, we discuss the utility of several rodent models used in the laboratory for translational menopause research, examining the benefits and drawbacks in helping us to better understand aging and the menopause transition in women. The rodent models discussed are ovary-intact, ovariectomy, and 4-vinylcylohexene diepoxide for the menopause transition. We then describe how these models may be implemented in the laboratory, particularly in the context of cognition. Ultimately, we aim to use these animal models to elucidate novel perspectives and interventions for maintaining a high quality of life in women, and to potentially prevent or postpone the onset of negative health consequences associated with these significant life changes during aging.
Ethinyl estradiol (EE), a synthetic, orally bio-available estrogen, is the most commonly prescribed form of estrogen in oral contraceptives, and is found in at least 30 different contraceptive formulations currently prescribed to women as well as hormone therapies prescribed to menopausal women. Thus, EE is prescribed clinically to women at ages ranging from puberty to reproductive senescence. Here, in two separate studies, the cognitive effects of cyclic or tonic EE administration following ovariectomy (Ovx) were evaluated in young female rats. Study I assessed the cognitive effects of low and high doses of EE, delivered tonically via a subcutaneous osmotic pump. Study II evaluated the cognitive effects of low, medium, and high doses of EE administered via a daily subcutaneous injection, modeling the daily rise and fall of serum EE levels with oral regimens. Study II also investigated the impact of low, medium and high doses of EE on the basal forebrain cholinergic system. The low and medium doses utilized here correspond to the range of doses currently used in clinical formulations, and the high dose corresponds to doses prescribed to a generation of women between 1960 and 1970, when oral contraceptives first became available. Here, we evaluate cognition using a battery of maze tasks tapping several domains of spatial learning and memory and basal forebrain cholinergic integrity by using immunohistochemistry and unbiased stereology to estimate the number of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT)-producing cells in the medial septum and vertical/diagonal bands. At the highest dose, EE treatment impaired multiple domains of spatial memory relative to vehicle treatment, regardless of administration method. When given cyclically at the low and medium doses, EE did not impact working memory, but transiently impaired reference memory during the learning phase of testing. Of the doses and regimens tested here, only EE at the highest dose impaired several domains of memory; tonic delivery of low EE, a dose that corresponds to the most popular doses used in the clinic today, did not impact cognition on any measure. Both medium and high doses of EE reduced the number of cholinergic cells in the basal forebrain and cell population estimates in the vertical/diagonal bands negatively correlate with working memory errors.
Cognitive changes that occur during mid-life and beyond are linked to both aging and the menopause transition. Studies in women suggest that the age at menopause onset can impact cognitive status later in life; yet, little is known about memory changes that occur during the transitional period to the post-menopausal state. The 4-vinylcyclohexene diepoxide (VCD) model simulates transitional menopause in rodents by depleting the immature ovarian follicle reserve and allowing animals to retain their follicle-deplete ovarian tissue, resulting in a profile similar to the majority of perimenopausal women. Here, Vehicle or VCD treatment was administered to ovary-intact adult and middle-aged Fischer-344 rats to assess the trajectory of cognitive change across time with normal aging and aging with transitional menopause via VCD-induced follicular depletion, as well as to evaluate whether age at the onset of follicular depletion plays a role in cognitive outcomes. Animals experiencing the onset of menopause at a younger age exhibited impaired spatial memory early in the transition to a follicle-deplete state. Additionally, at the mid- and post- follicular depletion time points, VCD-induced follicular depletion amplified an age effect on memory. Overall, these findings suggest that the age at the onset of menopause is a critical parameter to consider when evaluating learning and memory across the transition to reproductive senescence. From a translational perspective, this study illustrates how age at menopause onset might impact cognition in menopausal women, and provides insight into time points to explore for the window of opportunity for hormone therapy during the menopause transition period. Hormone therapy during this critical juncture might be especially efficacious at attenuating age- and menopause- related cognitive decline, producing healthy brain aging profiles in women who retain their ovaries throughout their lifespan.
Androstenedione, the main circulating ovarian hormone present after menopause, has been shown to positively correlate with poor spatial memory in an ovary-intact rodent model of follicular depletion, and to impair spatial memory when administered exogenously to surgically menopausal ovariectomized rats. Androstenedione can be converted directly to estrone via the aromatase enzyme, or to testosterone. The current study investigated the hormonal mechanism underlying androstenedione-induced cognitive impairments. Young adult ovariectomized rats were given either androstenedione, androstenedione plus the aromatase inhibitor anastrozole to block conversion to estrone, androstenedione+the androgen receptor blocker flutamide to block androgen receptor activity, or vehicle treatment, and were then administered a battery of learning and memory maze tasks. Since we have previously shown that estrone administration to ovariectomized rats impaired cognition, we hypothesized that androstenedione's conversion to estrone underlies, in part, its negative cognitive impact. Here, androstenedione administration impaired spatial reference and working memory. Further, androstenedione did not induce memory deficits when co-administered with the aromatase inhibitor, anastrozole, whereas pharmacological blockade of the androgen receptor failed to block the cognitive impairing effects of androstenedione. Anastrazole alone did not impact performance on any cognitive measure. The current data support the tenet that androstenedione impairs memory through its conversion to estrone, rather than via actions on the androgen receptor. Studying the effects of aromatase and estrogen metabolism is critical to elucidating how hormones impact women's health across the lifespan, and results hold important implications for understanding and optimizing the hormone milieu from the many endogenous and exogenous hormone exposures across the lifetime.
Female mammals undergo natural fluctuations in sex steroid hormone levels throughout life. These fluctuations span from early development, to cyclic changes associated with the menstrual or estrous cycle and pregnancy, to marked hormone flux during perimenopause, and a final decline at reproductive senescence. While the transition to reproductive senescence is not yet fully understood, the vast majority of mammals experience this spontaneous, natural phenomenon with age, which has broad implications for long-lived species. Indeed, this post-reproductive life stage, and its transition, involves significant and enduring physiological changes, including considerably altered sex steroid hormone and gonadotropin profiles that impact multiple body systems, including the brain. The endocrine-brain-aging triad is especially noteworthy, as many paths meet and interact. Many of the brain regions affected by aging are also sensitive to changes in ovarian hormone levels, and aging and reproductive senescence are both associated with changes in memory performance. This review explores how menopause is related to cognitive aging, and discusses some of the key neural systems and molecular factors altered with age and reproductive hormone level changes, with an emphasis on brain regions important for learning and memory.
Decreased serotonin (5-HT) function is associated with numerous cognitive and affective disorders. Women are more vulnerable to these disorders and have a lower rate of 5-HT synthesis than men. Serotonergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) are a major source of 5-HT in the forebrain and play a critical role in regulation of stress-related disorders. In particular, polymorphisms of tryptophan hydroxylase-2 (TpH2, the brain-specific, rate-limiting enzyme for 5-HT biosynthesis) are implicated in cognitive and affective disorders. Administration of 17β-estradiol (E2), the most potent naturally circulating estrogen in women and rats, can have beneficial effects on cognitive, anxiety-like, and depressive-like behaviors. Moreover, E2 increases TpH2 mRNA in specific subregions of the DRN. Although conjugated equine estrogens (CEE) are a commonly prescribed estrogen component of hormone therapy in menopausal women, there is a marked gap in knowledge regarding how CEE affects these behaviors and the brain 5-HT system. Therefore, we compared the effects of CEE and E2 treatments on behavior and TpH2 mRNA. Female Sprague-Dawley rats were ovariectomized, administered either vehicle, CEE, or E2 and tested on a battery of cognitive, anxiety-like, and depressive-like behaviors. The brains of these animals were subsequently analyzed for TpH2 mRNA. Both CEE and E2 exerted beneficial behavioral effects, although efficacy depended on the distinct behavior and for cognition, on the task difficulty. Compared to CEE, E2 generally had more robust anxiolytic and antidepressant effects. E2 increased TpH2 mRNA in the caudal and mid DRN, corroborating previous findings. However, CEE increased TpH2 mRNA in the caudal and rostral, but not the mid, DRN, suggesting that distinct estrogens can have subregion-specific effects on TpH2 gene expression. We also found differential correlations between the level of TpH2 mRNA in specific DRN subregions and behavior, depending on the type of behavior. These distinct associations imply that cognition, anxiety-like, and depressive-like behaviors are modulated by unique serotonergic neurocircuitry, opening the possibility of novel avenues of targeted treatment for different types of cognitive and affective disorders.
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