Progesterone reverses the spatial memory enhancements initiated by tonic and cyclic oestrogen therapy in middle-aged ovariectomized female rats

Heather Bimonte-Nelson, Kevin R. Francis, Claudia D. Umphlet, Ann Charlotte Granholm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

132 Scopus citations


While some research has indicated that ovarian hormone therapy (HT) benefits memory and decreases risk of Alzheimer's disease in menopausal women, several newer studies have shown null or detrimental effects. Despite the null and negative cognitive findings, the numerous studies showing positive effects beg the question of what factors determine whether HT acts as a neuroprotectant or a risk factor for brain functioning. Using middle-aged female rats, we directly compared six HTs. We evaluated the effects of ovariectomy, tonic low-dose, tonic high-dose and biweekly cyclic estradiol treatment, as well as whether progesterone altered the effectiveness of any one of these oestrogen regimens. Animals were tested on spatial and complex cued (intramaze patterns) reference memory using variants of the Morris maze. The tonic low-dose and cyclic estradiol treatments improved spatial performance, while the addition of progesterone reversed these beneficial cognitive effects of estradiol. Additionally, all groups learned to locate the platform on the cued task; however, an egocentric circling strategy was used with sham ovary-intact and hormone-replacement groups showing the most efficient search strategy. Although the question of memory retention 8 weeks after the first cognitive assessment was addressed, a large number of animals died between the first and second test, rendering the retest uninterpretable for many group comparisons. Specifically, both doses of tonic estradiol dramatically increased the number of deaths during the 17-week experiment, while the cyclic estradiol treatment did not. Progesterone decreased the number of deaths due to tonic estradiol treatment. Our findings suggest that the dose of estradiol replacement as well as the presence of progesterone influences the cognitive outcome of estradiol treatment. Further, there appears to be a dissociation between HT effects on cognition and mortality rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-242
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2006


  • Aging
  • Estradiol
  • Hippocampus
  • Hormone replacement
  • Reference memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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