Estrogen and basal forebrain cholinergic neurons: implications for brain aging and Alzheimer's disease-related cognitive decline

Horm Behav. 1998 Oct;34(2):98-111. doi: 10.1006/hbeh.1998.1451.


Recent studies suggest that estrogen replacement therapy can reduce the risk and severity of Alzheimer's disease (AD)-related dementia in postmenopausal women. Many different mechanisms by which estrogen therapy may help to reduce the risk and severity of AD-related pathophysiology have been proposed. Recent animal studies suggest that one way in which estrogen replacement may help to reduce cognitive deficits associated with aging and AD is by enhancing the functional status of cholinergic projections to the hippocampus and cortex. Here we review the evidence that estrogen is important in the maintenance of cholinergic neurons projecting to the hippocampus and cortex and that estrogen replacement can enhance the functional status of these neurons, as well as reduce cognitive deficits associated with muscarinic cholinergic impairment. Based on these studies, we conclude that, in animals, short-term treatment with physiological levels of estrogen, or estrogen and progesterone, has significant positive effects on cholinergic neurons in the medial septum and nucleus basalis magnocellularis and on their projections to the hippocampus and cortex. We hypothesize that similar effects in humans may help delay the decline in basal forebrain cholinergic function associated with aging and AD and thereby reduce the risk and severity of AD-related dementia in postmenopausal women.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Alzheimer Disease / physiopathology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / prevention & control
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / prevention & control
  • Estrogen Replacement Therapy
  • Estrogens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / cytology
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Prosencephalon / cytology
  • Prosencephalon / physiology*


  • Estrogens