In the past few decades it has become clear that estrogen signaling plays a much larger role in modulating the cognitive centers of the brain than previously thought possible. We have developed a nonhuman primate (NHP) model to investigate the relationships between estradiol (E) and cognitive aging. Our studies of cyclical E treatment in ovariectomized (OVX) young and aged rhesus monkeys have revealed compelling cognitive and synaptic effects of E in the context of aging. Delayed response (DR), a task that is particularly dependent on integrity of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) area 46 revealed the following: (1) that young OVX rhesus monkeys perform equally well whether treated with E or vehicle (V), and (2) that aged OVX animals given E perform as well as young adults with or without E, whereas OVX V-treated aged animals display significant DR impairment. We have analyzed the structure of layer III pyramidal cells in area 46 in these same monkeys. We found both age and treatment effects on these neurons that are consistent with behavioral data. Briefly, reconstructions of pyramidal neurons in area 46 from these monkeys showed that cyclical E increased the density of small, thin spines in both young and aged monkeys. However, this effect of E was against a background of age-related loss of small, thin spines, leaving aged V-treated monkeys with a particularly low density of these highly plastic spines, and vulnerable to cognitive decline. Our current interpretation is that E not only plays a critically important role in maintaining spine number, but also enables synaptic plasticity through a cyclical increase in small highly plastic spines that may be stabilized in the context of learning. Interestingly, recent studies demonstrate that chronic E is less effective at inducing spinogenesis than cyclical E. We have begun to link certain molecular attributes of excitatory synapses in area 46 to E effects and cognitive performance in these monkeys. Given the importance of synaptic estrogen receptor α (ER-α) in rat hippocampus, we focused our initial studies on synaptic ER-α in area 46. Three key findings have emerged from these studies: (1) synaptic ER-α is present in axospinous synapses in area 46; (2) it is stable across treatment and age groups (which is not the case in rat hippocampus); and (3) the abundance and distribution of synaptic ER-α is a key correlate of individual variation in cognitive performance in certain age and treatment groups. These findings have important implications for the design of hormone treatment strategies for both surgically and naturally menopausal women. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Neuroactive Steroids: Focus on Human Brain.
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