02 October 2020

Menopause, mitochondria and the brain

A new study on the relationship between menopause and cognitive abilities

Maria Tolmacheva, XX2 century

Women often complain that during the transition from premenopause to peri- and then postmenopause, they become forgetful and inattentive. The effect of estrogen on mitochondrial function and, ultimately, on thinking has been studied for years. At the 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), the results of a new study on the relationship between menopause, mitochondrial function and cognitive abilities (Study Helps Explain Cognition Decline After the Menopause Transition) are presented.

This is not the first time that researchers have suggested that the work of mitochondria affects thinking during menopause in women. Mitochondria are responsible for producing more than 90% of the energy needed by the human body to sustain life. Previous studies have hypothesized that a decrease in estrogen levels during the transition to menopause affects the efficiency of energy production. With a high level of estrogen, glucose is converted into energy through glycolysis. But when hormone levels drop during and after the transition to menopause, cells switch to ketogenesis and other inefficient forms of energy production, which in turn can affect memory and verbal learning ability.

The lead author of the new study, Rachel Schroeder from the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that it provides additional evidence of the effect of estrogen levels on the ability of mitochondria to produce energy efficiently.

Schroeder and her colleagues studied 110 participants undergoing menopause, when the level of estrogen in a woman's body begins to decline. The scientists assessed the relationship of mitochondrial function with cognitive abilities, taking into account other factors such as education, age and body mass index. They measured various indicators – biomarkers – of the mitochondria of the participants and conducted a series of cognitive tests, including memory, verbal learning and spatial perception. Women who had some mitochondrial performance indicators were higher, coped better with the tasks in the tests.

"Thanks to this study, we have confirmed that cognitive performance in women with more efficient mitochondria is higher," says Schroeder.

"Although the results are not exhaustive, this study provides valuable information about the possible role of changes in mitochondrial function in cognitive decline during the transition from menopause to postmenopause. Further research is needed to determine whether these changes can be predicted even before premenopause and whether they can be prevented," adds Dr. Stephanie Faubion, director of NAMS.

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