Ovarian steroids and the brain: implications for cognition and aging

Neurology. 1997 May;48(5 Suppl 7):S8-15. doi: 10.1212/wnl.48.5_suppl_7.8s.


Ovarian steroids have many effects on the brain throughout the lifespan, beginning during gestation and continuing into senescence. These hormones affect areas of the brain that are not primarily involved in reproduction, such as the basal forebrain, hippocampus, caudate putamen, midbrain raphe, and brainstem locus coeruleus. Here we discuss three effects of estrogens and progestins that are especially relevant to memory processes and identify hormonal alterations associated with aging and neurodegenerative diseases. First, estrogens and progestins regulate synaptogenesis in the CA1 region of the hippocampus during the 4- to 5-day estrous cycle of the female rat. Formation of new excitatory synapses is induced by estradiol and involves N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, whereas synaptic downregulation involves intracellular progestin receptors. Second, there are developmentally programmed sex differences in the hippocampal structure that mat help explain why male and female rats use different strategies to solve spatial navigation problems. During the period of development when testosterone is elevated in the male, aromatase and estrogen receptors are transiently expressed in the hippocampus. Recent data on behavior and synapse induction strongly suggest that this pathway is involved in the masculinization or defeminization of hippocampal structure and function. Third, ovarian steroids have effects throughout the brain, including effects on brainstem and midbrain catecholaminergic neurons, midbrain serotonergic pathways, and the basal forebrain cholinergic system. Regulation of the serotonergic system appears to be linked to the presence of estrogen- and progestin-sensitive neurons in the midbrain raphe, whereas the ovarian steroid influence on cholinergic function involves induction of choline acetyltransferase and acetylcholinesterase according to a sexually dimorphic pattern. Because of these widespread influences on these various neuronal systems, it is not surprising that ovarian steroids produce measurable cognitive effects after ovariectomy and during aging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Estrogens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Progestins / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Synapses / physiology


  • Estrogens
  • Progestins