Estrogen facilitates higher cognitive functions by exerting effects on brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Estrogen induces spinogenesis and synaptogenesis in these two brain regions and also initiates a complex set of signal transduction pathways via estrogen receptors (ERs). Along with the classical genomic effects mediated by activation of ER α and ER β, there are membrane-bound ER α, ER β, and G protein-coupled estrogen receptor 1 (GPER1) that can mediate rapid nongenomic effects. All key ERs present throughout the body are also present in synapses of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This review summarizes estrogen actions in the brain from the standpoint of their effects on synapse structure and function, noting also the synergistic role of progesterone. We first begin with a review of ER subtypes in the brain and how their abundance and distributions are altered with aging and estrogen loss (e.g., ovariectomy or menopause) in the rodent, monkey, and human brain. As there is much evidence that estrogen loss induced by menopause can exacerbate the effects of aging on cognitive functions, we then review the clinical trials of hormone replacement therapies and their effectiveness on cognitive symptoms experienced by women. Finally, we summarize studies carried out in nonhuman primate models of age- and menopause-related cognitive decline that are highly relevant for developing effective interventions for menopausal women. Together, we highlight a new understanding of how estrogen affects higher cognitive functions and synaptic health that go well beyond its effects on reproduction.
Copyright © 2015 the American Physiological Society.