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Published on: June 25, 2018
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Scientific research projects typically take several years from concept to published paper, but Dr. Gillian Einstein sounds like a woman in a hurry. Appointed barely a year ago to the world’s first research chair devoted to women’s brain health and aging, Dr. Einstein is bursting with ideas and pushing ahead with new initiatives.
She sees the Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women’s Brain Health and Aging at the University of Toronto as not only a funding vehicle for scientists, but also as a bully pulpit for the promotion of more research in the field.
Dr. Einstein is exploring a key aspect of a phenomenon that researchers ignored for far too long: the fact that women develop Alzheimer’s disease at a much higher rate than men.
The chair’s major research project is a study of memory and attention changes in women who have had their ovaries removed at a relatively early age, before they would normally go into menopause. The focus is on women who had them taken out as a precaution because they have a gene that makes them more likely to get breast cancer. The research has shown that this group of women faces a greater risk of dementia later in life, which has left scientists wondering whether this outcome could be related to lower estrogen levels.
“For women’s brain health, it’s incredibly important to understand the role of estrogens,” said Dr. Einstein in an interview with Mind Over Matter®.
Dr. Einstein’s study was already underway, thanks to funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Cancer Foundation. The new chair, partially funded by Women’s Brain Health Initiative, allowed her to expand and accelerate the work.
She and her colleagues are focusing on 65 women who have had their ovaries removed and a similar number who still have them, along with a smaller group of women who have the breast cancer gene mutation, but also still have their ovaries.
They are hoping to publish their findings within a year and already have interesting preliminary results, indicating that the women without ovaries are showing changes in different types of memory, particularly verbal memory such as remembering words in a list or story.
“I hope it will seal the idea that it’s important for women to keep their ovaries for healthy brain aging,” said Dr. Einstein. “And if they have their ovaries removed, what kind of changes can they expect, and what would be the best time for intervention.”
The chair is also funding new arms of the study, some of which will follow a less-traditional research path. The scientists are interviewing women about what it is like for them to have their ovaries removed. The goal is to develop a better understanding of the impact of the surgery on a participant’s sense of self. The plan is to use arts-based methods to allow the participants to articulate their experiences through storytelling, poetry, or drawings of their own bodies.
Additionally, a sculptor is interacting with the participants in the hopes that she will portray their experiences through her own artistic expression. Dr. Einstein hopes that at some point this research may result not only in published academic papers, but also in an art show.“I think for too long we’ve discounted people’s own stories. Understanding them better will help give us ideas for where to turn our scientific rigour,” said Dr. Einstein.
Dr. Einstein noted that the Alzheimer’s community is interested in these explorations as a possible new way of measuring cognitive decline. As she explained, sometimes an individual notices changes in his or her memory capacity, but the changes are not dramatic enough to show up on tests at the doctor’s office. A more subjective test, based on an individual’s own account, could help researchers better understand the early stages of dementia.
“It tells you something about the nature of the condition. It’s not an objective account, but an important account,” said Dr. Einstein.
Among Dr. Einstein’s future plans for the chair are funding initiatives to encourage students of neuroscience or psychology to include explorations of sex differences in their research projects.
She has been writing editorials on the subject since the 1990s, but its importance has only recently taking hold in the international research community.
“It’s really catching fire now. Once people start putting dollars into it, people get interested.”
Dr. Einstein, who is American-born, says that Canada is a world leader in the field in both funding and attitudes towards research on sex and gender differences. “I’ve been at meetings in the U.S. at the NIH (National Institutes of Health), where they’ve said if Canada can do this, why can’t we?”
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V6
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