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Alzheimer’s disease disproportionally affects women, who account for nearly two-thirds of all cases worldwide. Some evidence suggests female sex hormones influence the pathology and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study in mice shows that the brains of male and female mice with Alzheimer’s regulate amyloid-beta protein differently, with the hormone estradiol playing a critical role.

Researchers measured amyloid-beta accumulation in male and female mice when exposed to differing levels of cholinergic tone (acetylcholine release). Then, they examined the effects of removing the ovaries (the primary source of estradiol) and estradiol replacement on this relationship. Finally, using magnetic resonance imaging techniques, they assessed the amyloid-beta burden in the brains of 130 older adults.

They found that acetylcholine activity and the development of amyloid-related issues in male and ovariectomized female mice were directly linked. This link, however, was not observed in female mice with intact ovaries or females without ovaries that received estradiol. They also found that the age-related decline in acetylcholine worsens the amyloid-beta burden in older adults.

Amyloid-beta is a toxic protein that clumps together, forming plaques in the brain – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Cholinergic neurons are vital for cognition and perception. They release acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that facilitates impulse firing between neurons. Cholinergic neurons are particularly vulnerable to amyloid-beta’s toxic effects, which impair acetylcholine release. The relationship between acetylcholine and amyloid-beta is bidirectional: amyloid-beta aggregation impairs acetylcholine production, in turn increasing amyloid-beta aggregation, creating a vicious cycle.

These findings suggest that estradiol, a female sex hormone, influences amyloid-beta burden in mice. They also highlight the need for Alzheimer’s research to consider sex differences, the relationship between acetylcholine signaling and amyloid-beta buildup, and the effects of sex hormones to better develop treatment strategies.

Heat shock proteins inhibit amyloid-beta clumping and reduce amyloid-beta plaque toxicity. Sauna use increases heat shock protein production and activity, potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more in our sauna overview article.

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