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Study: Estrogen Improves Memory of Alzheimer’s Patients

November 21, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The memory and concentration of elderly women with Alzheimer’s disease improved dramatically in a test of estrogen hormone treatment, but experts say larger studies are needed to verify the findings.

In a study presented on Wednesday at a national meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Sanjay Asthana reported that women with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease doubled their mental keenness while receiving estrogen through skin patches.

``Women on estrogen had a significantly improved ability to remember things,″ said Asthana, a doctor at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in Tacoma, Wash., where the study was conducted.

Earlier studies have suggested that estrogen can protect women from developing Alzheimer’s disease, but Asthana said this is the first full study of women who have been diagnosed with the brain disorder. He said, however, the study was too small to give final answers and tests using more patients are needed.

The study involved 12 women in their 70s. All of them received drug-delivery skin patches, six with estrogen, the others with a placebo, or dummy, preparation.

``The effect of the estrogen was rapid,″ said Asthana. ``Within a week, there was improvement.″

Throughout the eight-week trial, the women received standard neurological and psychological tests to detect changes.

Asthana said the women on estrogen had memory test scores 2-2 1/2 times greater than their scores without the drug. Attention test scores ``almost doubled,″ he said.

Loss of memory and attention span are two of the cognitive functions most severely affected by Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects about 4 million Americans. It progressively destroys the mind, eventually killing the victim. There is no proven cause or cure.

Asthana said in his study the estrogen effect was dose-related; that is, patients who absorbed more of the hormone from the patches improved the most. The memory and attention improvements gradually faded, he said, after the experiment ended.

A number of studies have shown that estrogen tends to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms, including three that concluded the hormone reduces the risk of the disease by up to 40 percent in post-menopausal women.

Dr. Bruce McEwen, a brain researcher at Rockefeller University in New York, said Asthana’s study was good news. Combined with other studies, he said, it shows a ``consistent pattern″ suggesting that estrogen can have a strong influence on Alzheimer’s disease.

``This research is very encouraging,″ said Zavern Khachaturian of the Alzheimer’s Association and the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute. But he cautioned: ``We cannot yet draw any conclusions from so small a sample. These results must be confirmed in a larger group.″

Estrogen is known primarily as a female hormone, but researchers have learned it has many other functions. In women of childbearing age, estrogen protects against heart disease and bone loss.

In the brain, estrogen appears to increase the action of CREB, a gene that plays a critical role in memory.

Even the male brain needs estrogen. Testosterone, a male hormone, is converted to estrogen. The production of testosterone throughout men’s lives may account for the fact that Alzheimer’s is much less common among men than among women, whose estrogen levels drop after menopause.

Estrogen replacement therapy became used most widely to protect post-menopausal women from osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease. The therapy since has been found to improve the mental performance of healthy older women, to protect against heart attack and to lower the risks of some types of cancer.

However, studies have shown that the therapy can slightly increase the risk of breast cancer and of developing blood clots.

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