Tag Archives: estrogen


High levels of estrogen in womb might increase risk of developing autism

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad-range of lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people and how they experience the world around them. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic and nongenetic, or environmental influences.

Amniotic fluid surrounds the baby in the womb, as seen in an ultrasound. Image credits: Nevit Dilmen.

Scientists have recently identified a link between exposure to high levels of estrogen sex hormones in the womb and increased risk of developing autism. The findings of the research supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, and Wellcome, are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

This study is the first to show that elevated levels of prenatal amniotic estradiol, estriol and estrone are each associated with autism, with estradiol levels being the most significant predictor of the likelihood of autism.  The discovery adds further evidence to support the prenatal sex steroid theory of autism, which was first proposed two decades ago.

In 2015, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge and the State Serum Institute in Denmark measured the levels of four prenatal steroid hormones. The scientists discovered that androgens in the amniotic fluid were higher in male fetuses who developed autism. These androgens are produced in higher quantities in male than in female fetuses on average, so it could explain why autism occurs more often in boys. They are also known to masculinize parts of the brain and to affect the number of connections between brain cells.

The same group of scientists has built on their previous findings by testing the amniotic fluid samples from the same 98 individuals sampled from the Danish Biobank. Amniotic samples from more than 100,000 pregnancies were measured but this time looking at another set of prenatal sex steroid hormones called estrogens. This is an essential next step because some of the previously-studied hormones are directly converted into estrogens.

All four estrogens were significantly higher, on average, in the 98 fetuses who developed autism later, compared to the 177 fetuses who did not develop autism. High levels of prenatal estrogens were even more predictive of the likelihood of autism than were high levels of prenatal androgens (such as testosterone). Prenatal estrogens have effects on brain growth and masculinize the brain in many mammals (contrary to the popular belief of estrogen feminizing the brain).

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, who led this study and who first proposed the prenatal sex steroid theory of autism, said: “This new finding supports the idea that increased prenatal sex steroid hormones are one of the potential causes for the condition. Genetics is well-established as another, and these hormones likely interact with genetic factors to affect the developing fetal brain.”

Alex Tsompanidis, a PhD student in Cambridge who worked on the study, said: “These elevated hormones could be coming from the mother, the baby or the placenta. Our next step should be to study all these possible sources and how they interact during pregnancy.”

Dr Alexa Pohl, part of the Cambridge team, said: “This finding is exciting because the role of estrogens in autism has hardly been studied and we hope that we can learn more about how they contribute to fetal brain development in further experiments. We still need to see whether the same result holds true in autistic females.”

The team cautioned that these findings cannot and should not be used to screen for autism. “We are interested in understanding autism, not preventing it,” added Professor Baron-Cohen.

Dr. Arieh Cohen, the biochemist on the team based at the State Serum Institute in Copenhagen, said: “This is a terrific example of how a unique biobank set up 40 years ago is still reaping scientific fruit today in unimagined ways, through international collaboration.”

Powder meth in foil. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Estrogen may cause sex differences in methamphetamine addiction

Scientists know that the brain undergoes changes when it becomes addicted to methamphetamine, but little research has been done to investigate how sex-related hormones might affect that addiction. In a new study, researchers found that the brains of female rats respond differently to drugs like methamphetamine, likely mediated by estrogen. As such, addiction treatment in the future could be tailored differently for males and females.

Powder meth in foil. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Powder meth in foil. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, supercharges activity in certain areas of the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. The powerful stimulant produces a high due to a surge in dopamine in the brain, but repeated exposure to the drug trains the brains to expect and crave heightened levels of the neurotransmitter. In time, methamphetamine addiction will alter the way neurons fire inside the brain, targeting synapses in the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of decision-making and learning.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the United States, some common short-term side effects of meth use include mind and mood changes such as anxiety, euphoria, and depression. Long-term effects can include chronic fatigue, paranoid or delusional thinking and permanent psychological damage. In the United States alone, the highly addictive substance is responsible for 11,000 deaths and countless trials in drug courts. Once they’re hooked, users find it very difficult to kick their addiction.

Currently, there are no medications approved for the treatment of methamphetamine addiction, although there are drug rehabilitation programs that can provide results. Evidence suggests that bupropion — an antidepressant that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of depression and for cigarette smoking cessation — might work for the treatment of meth addiction. Likewise, a drug typically used to treat alcoholism, Naltrexone, may also have promise for the treatment of addiction to methamphetamine.

As if treating meth addiction wasn’t complicated enough, this new study made by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina suggests that there may be sex differences. The research team, led by Antonieta Lavin, an associate professor of neuroscience, examined the prefrontal cortices of both male and female rats which were either addicted or not addicted to methamphetamine. Much to everyone’s surprise, the researchers found that the synaptic response in this area was different between males and females, as well as between addicted and non-addicted animals. Specifically, female rats showed lower resting activity than male rats but then experienced a faster rise in their brain’s synaptic activity after taking the drug. This stronger response was then followed by a faster fall once the drug’s effects wore off, the authors reported in the journal eNeuro.

Sex hormones may be responsible for the observed synaptic differences — and this may also apply to humans. If this is confirmed then substance abuse disorder treatment might vary significantly between males and females in the future.

“Next, I would like to study how meth addiction changes throughout the different phases of the female cycle,” said Lavin. “This insight would help us improve treatment for women suffering from substance use disorder.”

Salve and oil.

Compounds in essential oil may impact hormones, promote male breast development

Essential oils do more than make your skin smell good — they also interfere with your hormonal balance, new research has found.

Salve and oil.

Image credits Kathy Zinn.

Pre-puberty male gynecomastia (breast tissue growth) is a relatively rare condition. There are numerous underlying conditions that can lead to gynecomastia, however, and in certain cases, doctors can’t pinpoint any immediately apparent cause.

A new study could shed light on the root of such cases: the team found that eight chemical compounds contained in lavender and tea tree oils interfere with hormone levels by promoting estrogen and inhabiting testosterone secretion.

Essential oils are used in the manufacturing of many products such as soaps, lotions, shampoos, or hair-styling products. They’re sometimes mixed in cleaning products, even seeing some use in medicinal treatments, but despite being widely seen as benign, even health-promoting compounds, lead researcher Tyler Ramsey from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says caution is the better part of valor when using such oils.

“Our society deems essential oils as safe. However, they possess a diverse amount of chemicals and should be used with caution because some of these chemicals are potential endocrine disruptors,” he says.

The research was prompted by a growing number of reported cases of gynecomastia associated with an usage or exposure to essential oils. More damning, the symptoms subsided once the patients stopped using the oils, associated products, or otherwise limited exposure to the oils. It was also spurred on by previous findings of co-author Dr. Kenneth Korach, who reported back in 2007 that lavender and tea tree oil would interfere with the activity of male-specific hormones, which could affect the development of boys hitting puberty.

The new study took an in-depth look at eight key chemicals contained in the oils. Four of these were shared in both lavender and tea tree oil, while the other four were found in either oil. To determine the effect of each compound, the team isolated samples of each, and then applied these to human cancer cells in the lab, recording any changes they observed.

All eight compounds showed varying degrees of estrogen promotion, testosterone inhibition, or both. More worryingly, most of these eight compounds are found in some 65 other types of essential oils, Ramsey explains.

“Lavender oil and tea tree oil pose potential environmental health concerns and should be investigated further,” he said.

This hormonal effect could explain why people using essential containing such chemicals run a higher risk of developing breast tissue. Naturally, some individuals will be more sensitive to the effects than others, and the level of use/exposure is also an important factor — so individual mileage may vary. So far, the results do suggest that better regulation or a higher level of consumer awareness are required to limit the negative health impacts of essential oils and products that contain them.

But before you assault an essential oil stand crying bloody vengeance, keep in mind that this study has some significant limitations. Chief among them stand the use of cancer cells and the dosages used. Cancer cells, which is what the team used as a subject, may or may not accurately represent the response of other tissues — say, of healthy breast tissue. The dosages (concentrations) the team used could also not accurately recreate the dosage a living, in-vivo cell might experience.

Living organisms also maintain a complex set of checks and balances on hormonal levels, which a culture of cancer cells in a lab couldn’t replicate.

All these limitations should be addressed by future studies before a definite link between gynecomastia in children and tea tree or lavender oil can be established. Until then, here is a list of safety guidelines on the use of essential oils from the Aromatherapy Trade Council:

  • Precautions should be observed when using essential oils since they are highly concentrated.
  • Do not apply undiluted essential oils directly to the skin.
  • Never use undiluted oils on children under the age of three.
  • If you are pregnant you must seek the advice of your doctor, midwife or aromatherapist before using any essential oils.
  • When used appropriately, essential oils and aromatherapy products are safe for all the entire family.

The study results will be presented today, 19 March, at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Chicago.

Recents studies show how coffee is good for your health

Steaming hot, iced, blended, black, creamy. Coffee! It comes in many forms, and it’s part of my daily routine. It’s part of many others’ too. Last week several established publications’ websites were running coffee-related articles, touting this beverage’s health benefits. Scientists have remarked on this drink’s healthful qualities in the past. The idea that coffee is good for you is not a new one.

The Relationship with Diabetes

The delightful drink seems to help in warding off type 2 diabetes. The sex hormone-binding globulin, or SHBG for short, is a protein which controls the sex hormones in the human body: testosterone and estrogen. It has also been considered to have a key role in the evolution of this specific type of diabetes.

It has been observed that drinking coffee will increase the amount of plasma of SHBG. A few years ago, a study showed that women who ingested a minimum of four cups each day were slightly less likely to develop diabetes as opposed to those who didn’t drink it at all.

Help in Other Areas

The Best Way to Start the Day Right. Source: Pixabay.

Coffee, primarily the caffeinated kind, has been known to prevent as well as alleviate Parkinson’s disease. The consumption of caffeine has been found to significantly decrease the number of Parkinson’s cases. In fact, it may even aid in simple movement in individuals afflicted with the disease.

It provides some benefits for those who are concerned about their heart. Small daily doses can assist in preventing heart failure. In one study, it was shown that the risk of heart failure in people drinking four European cups of coffee per day was reduced by 11%.

Newer studies show that the regular intake of a relatively small amount of coffee can bring down the chances of premature death by 10%. Additional benefits could possibly include preventing cirrhosis, decrease the likelihood of multiple sclerosis (MS), and prevent the onslaught of colon cancer. However, to be certain whether these benefits are actually present in coffee more tests are needed. It is also one of the very best sources of antioxidants which protect the human body against destructive molecules called free radicals. This is good since free radicals are believed by many scientists to bring about cancer, blood vessel disease, and other serious ailments.

The Biggie: Coffee and Liver Health

From Pot to Cup. Source: Pixabay.

Perhaps the biggest health factor it basks in being associated with is liver health. Marc Gunter, head of a recent large-scale European study noted by National Geographic, has stated coffee drinking is linked to good health in the liver and circulatory systems. He also says it can account for lower inflammation levels in those who drink it as opposed to those who don’t.

The discoveries this study has led to supply the strongest defense to date for the healthful qualities of coffee. Gunter informed the scientific community and the public that he plans to examine the beverage’s chemical compounds in an attempt to know what makes it healthful.

We have actually seen how it can aid in liver conditions for several years. For instance, it was found that consuming three cups of coffee on a daily basis reduced the chances of getting liver cancer by 50%! Decaf also decreases the number of enzymes located in the liver. Thus, it is seen that caffeine is not always the prime healthy aspect provided in coffee. Drinking the beverage frequently has been associated with decreasing the risk of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) which is a rare disease infecting the liver’s bile ducts.

As we’ve seen, coffee has quite a few benefits when drunk regularly and moderately. The important thing to recognize now is that many specific studies need to done on coffee itself and how it relates to treating various illnesses.

A minority of women go through extreme PMS – and now we know why

Researchers have discovered that a minority of women go through severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms due to a hormonal abnormality.

Expression of the ESC/E(Z) gene network was found to be systematically disturbed in PMDD. Credit: Peter Schmidt, M.D., NIMH., David Goldman, M.D., NIAAAClose

National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers report that 2 to 5 percent of women go through something called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). During PMDD, their hormonal levels are unchanged but for some reason, they are much more sensitive to these hormones.

“We found dysregulated expression in a suspect gene complex which adds to evidence that PMDD is a disorder of cellular response to estrogen and progesterone,” explained Peter Schmidt, M.D. of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, Behavioral Endocrinology Branch. “Learning more about the role of this gene complex holds hope for improved treatment of such prevalent reproductive endocrine-related mood disorders.”

This is a groundbreaking study because it finally shows the molecular mechanisms that appear to be triggering the debilitating condition, demonstrating once and for all that extreme PMS is a real thing.

“This is a big moment for women’s health, because it establishes that women with PMDD have an intrinsic difference in their molecular apparatus for response to sex hormones – not just emotional behaviours they should be able to voluntarily control,” said David Goldman, from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In order to reach this conclusion, they recruited 10 females suffering from PMDD and 9 control women, and turned off the progesterone and oestrogen in their system. The women with PMDD stopped exhibiting extreme symptoms, while the control women didn’t report similar changes – so scientists understood the reaction was connected to the hormones.

They then cultured the women’s white blood cells, which express many similar genes to the brain cells and are much easier to extract and handle. What they found was that a large gene complex called ESC/E(Z) (Extra Sex Combs/Enhancer of Zeste) was different in the two groups. In PMDD women, the genes were overexpressed, making researchers believe that something in the molecular pathway goes haywire

“For the first time, we now have cellular evidence of abnormal signaling in cells derived from women with PMDD, and a plausible biological cause for their abnormal behavioral sensitivity to estrogen and progesterone,” explained Schmidt.

Of course, this is just the first step – but if we at least have confirmation of some mechanism at work, then we can start taking action and look for ways to address this problem.

Journal Reference: N Dubey, J F Hoffman, K Schuebel, Q Yuan, P E Martinez, L K Nieman, D R Rubinow, P J Schmidt, D Goldman. The ESC/E(Z) complex, an effector of response to ovarian steroids, manifests an intrinsic difference in cells from women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Molecular Psychiatry, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2016.229

Armada of sperm headed for the egg. A birth control pill for men would stop ejaculation. Photo credit: blog.f1000.com

Male birth control pill may work by blocking sperm ejaculation

  • Male birth control pills have been researched for some time, however previous attempts have been found to be ineffective.
  • A new method that concentrates at blocking male sperm ejaculation, has been found to be effective in mice. A drug could be administered orally, just like the female version.
  • Before a male birth control pill can be released for humans, it will take a lot of time.
Armada of sperm headed for the egg. A birth control pill for men would stop ejaculation. Photo credit: blog.f1000.com

Armada of sperm headed for the egg. A birth control pill for men would stop ejaculation. Photo credit: blog.f1000.com

When ‘the pill’  appeared in the early 1960’s it  stirred a sexual revolution, while also offering a fantastic family planning tool. To this day, it is the most reliable contraception method and safe to use (almost), however as you might imagine it was a rather bumpy road at the beginning. Obviously, birth control pills are exclusively available to women, but why not a pill for men too? The challenges are numerous, and previous attempts showed numerous flaws and side effects. A new research by scientists at the Monash University in Australia took an alternate route at developing a possibly viable birth control pill for men by blocking sperm ejaculation, instead of sperm production. Findings show promising results in tests on mice, however we might be many years away from seeing such a product on the market.

The pill

Birth control pills work through several mechanisms, with their primary purpose being to stop ovulation. Since no egg is released, sperm fertilization is impossible and thus the woman can’t get pregnant. To do this, most pills release synthetic forms of estrogen and progestin. These exclusively female hormones stabilize a woman’s natural hormone levels indifferent of menstrual cycle. For the egg to be released by the ovaries, other hormones need to be signaled by an estrogen bump which typically occurs during mic-cycle. So simply by normalizing estrogen levels and avoiding a peak, the egg isn’t released and pregnancy is totally avoided.

Things a lot more complicated with men, and not just because estrogen doesn’t work on men – not in the way you’d want at least. For one, we’re not talking about stopping an egg from being released once a month. A birth control pill for men would need to stop each of the 1,500 sperm cells men produce each second. Hormonal treatments similar to the mechanics of the female version have proved to be clumsy, and produce numerous side effects. Attempts at halting the rapid production of sperm is similarly difficult, in part because a natural barrier between the blood and the testis, the site of sperm production, keeps drugs out.

Blocking ejaculation

A team of researchers led by  Sabatino Ventura of Monash University in Australia took an alternate route. Instead of concentrating on stopping sperm production, the scientists decided to look for a way to halt sperm ejaculation altogether. Sperm is produced inside the testicles and then stured in a coiled tube called the epididymis. During ejaculation, smooth muscles contract and propel the sperm out the epididymis, through a tube called the vas deferens, then into the urethra from which it is finally expelled. Muscle contraction is signaled by certain hormones which attach themselves to two receptors: α1A-adrenoceptors and P2X1-purinoceptors.

Previous attempts tried to block only the α1A-adrenoceptors, but tests on mice showed that  sperm still made its way to the urethra. Scientists suggest that the other receptor is compensating, leading to fertilization 50% of the time. For their study, Ventura and colleagues bred mice which were genetically modified to block both receptors. Both female and male mice were born lacking the two receptors and proceeded to mate as usual. It was found that female mice could still become pregnant following artificial insemination.

The modified males, however, didn’t fertilize the females. Closer inspection showed that the males’ vas deferens did not contract normally in response to stimulation, suggesting that the lack of receptors did stop sperm movement. What about side effects? Well, the two receptors are known to be linked to cardiovascular health, but males’ blood pressure only dropped by 10%.

Because the vas deferens is located  outside the blood-testicle barrier, this also means drugs that target these receptors could be administered orally – essentially,  a male birth control pill would thus be possible. More work will be required to test the side effects more thoroughly before clinical trials on human may begin – which will take many years no doubt.  In fact, drugs that block α1A-adrenoceptors are already on the market to treat benign prostate enlargement.

Even if a birth control pill for men would be release tomorrow with no side effects and completely reversible, there is still a big challenge in the way of its wide-scale usage. Of course, there is a psychological factor involved – men are very proud of their reproductive capabilities and being unable to ejaculate might not be the most appealing prospect for most.

“A lack of ejaculate has the potential to be disconcerting,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Why are females better at coping with stress? Study suggests estrogen is the key

stressSociety today is becoming ever stressed out it seems. According to a recent American Psychological Association poll, nearly a quarter of Americans confessed to currently feeling under “extreme stress,” however not all of us are as stressed under the same conditions. For instance, there’s a general consensus in the medical world that women are better at coping with stress than men, despite it’s been unclear why. Recently, however, University at Buffalo researchers have published a paper in which they suggest that estrogen in the brain allows females to better withstand chronic stress.

Although its not considered psychiatric disorder per se, chronic stress can be a trigger for the development of psychiatric disorders in vulnerable individuals – this in the worst case scenario, the rest of the time it’s a real pest that comes in the way of happiness. Females have been found to be more resilient to stress, a fact that has been accounted to responsibilities inequality in the past (men went to work, fought wars, engaged in vices, while women stayed at home to tend children), however this explanation isn’t sufficient today’s gender equal society.

UB researchers led by  Zhen Yan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, found that there is actually a molecular mechanism that underlines gender-specific effects of stress. Namely, it seems females respond better to stress thanks to the protective properties of estrogen.

[RELATED] Smiling facilitates stress relief 

This conclusion came after the scientists subjected rats, both males and females, to a one week-long session of period stress. Female rats which went through the stressful physical restrain showed no impairment in their ability to remember and recognize objects they had previously been shown. In contrast, young males exposed to the same stress were impaired in their short-term memory.

Yan and colleagues had shown in a previous study published in the journal Neuron showed that repeated stress results in loss of the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex of young males. The glutamate receptor is the brain region that controls working memory, attention, decision-making, emotion and other high-level “executive” processes.

Correlating with present findings, its clear the rat young males had trouble properly signaling the glutamate receptor. The glutamate receptor in stressed females, however, was found to be intact. The researchers had an educated hunch that estrogen plays a key role in this gender differentiation of stressful effects, so they manipulating the amount of estrogen produced in the brains of rats. Thus, the UB researchers were able to make the males respond to stress more like females and the females respond more like males.

“When estrogen signaling in the brains of females was blocked, stress exhibited detrimental effects on them,” explains Yan. “When estrogen signaling was activated in males, the detrimental effects of stress were blocked.

“We still found the protective effect of estrogen in female rats whose ovaries were removed,” says Yan. “It suggests that it might be estrogen produced in the brain that protects against the detrimental effects of stress.”

In the current study, Yan and her colleagues found that the enzyme aromatase, which produces estradiol, an estrogen hormone, in the brain, is responsible for female stress resilience. They found that aromatase levels are significantly higher in the prefrontal cortex of female rats.

That’s not to say that we might be seeing estrogen treatments to males; the side-effects would be devastating. Other solutions might be found, however. The study’s key finding however is that it yet again strengthens the idea that the glutamate receptor is responsible for stress mitigation, a fundamental aspect other researchers could use to develop effective treatments.

“If we could find compounds similar to estrogen that could be administered without causing hormonal side effects, they could prove to be a very effective treatment for stress-related problems in males,” she says.

The findings were published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.