Thursday, September 30, 2010

Today's Science News For Women: Your Estrogen Sucks

A study about the effect of estrogen on the learning abilities of female rats has just come out:

Can't Focus? Could Be High Estrogen
High levels of estrogen in women may contribute to slower learning, according to a new study.
High estrogen levels in women while they are ovulating may be directly responsible for sluggishness or problems concentrating, a Canadian study released Friday has found.

Researchers at Concordia University's Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology in Montreal linked high estrogen levels in laboratory rats to an inability to pay attention and learn.

These high levels have also been shown to interfere with women's ability to pay attention, but the study, to be published in the journal Brain and Cognition, is the first to show "how this impediment can be due to a direct effect of the hormone on mature brain structures," said a statement.

Both humans and rodents have similar brain physiology.

"Although estrogen is known to play a significant role in learning and memory, there has been no clear consensus on its effect," said study lead author Wayne Brake.

"Our conclusively that high estrogen levels inhibit the cognitive ability in female rodents."
Yah, yah. But of course! Estrogen makes us girlz stupid. Though we can still notice how very viral this particular research seems to be on the net! It flies around blogs!

But what about the effects of estrogen on learning in general? Some studies suggest that it improves learning*, others suggest that it does not, and so on. I found this survey especially relevant in the current context:

The third point and the one that keeps me up at night is estrogen concentration. Of the many studies reported in the literature, I would guesstimate that more than 90% do not measure endogenous hormone levels, making it impossible to determine how much estrogen is being experienced by the female at the time of testing. Also, in many cases, estrogen concentrations would be and indeed are very high, not physiological, and thus irrelevant to female life. We recently tested whether
exogenous exposure to estrogen in ovariectimized females would enhance learning, in this case of a classically conditioned eyeblink response (Leuner et al. 2004b). We found no effect on performance at any dose that would be experienced by a female
under normal living conditions (Fig. 1C). However, we did find enhancing effects at very high doses, nearly 10 what a female rat in proestrus (when estrogen levels peak) would experience. What does that say about estrogen in living breathing
females? Not much. It probably does say something about learning in women treated with estrogen after menopause or hysterectomy, many of whom are prescribed supraphysiological doses of " therapy." But if we are to understand the effects of estrogen in the female as she lives, it must be done with physiological doses of estrogen, preferably with the cycle intact.
Were those rats in Wayne Brake's study on mega-doses of estrogen? And what were the comparison rats? Were they also female rats? Because the way I see these news spread is as evidence of women in general being sluggish and poor learners during ovulation. As opposed to men.

To say that women learn less well when ovulating than at other times is not the same thing at all, you know.

And to say that female rats with high estrogen levels (perhaps not natural levels) are more sluggish learners of the connection between two sounds than female rats with lower estrogen levels is not at all the same thing as

Can't Focus? Could Be High Estrogen
High levels of estrogen in women may contribute to slower learning, according to a new study
You know what pisses me off the most? It's only studies like this one that go viral. Studies which suggest that estrogen enhances learning do not. Which tells you all you want to know about the motivations of that rapid dissemination of information.
You might want to Google Dr. Brake, by the way. I get the feeling that he might not care for women much.
*A few other studies having to do with rodents.