UW-Madison study proves brain estrogen is necessary to ovulation, could change infertility treatment

MADISON, Wis - University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are challenging the long-thought idea that only a woman's ovaries produce estrogen, making doctors rethink how ovulation works.

The study shows estrogen formed in the brain is necessary for ovulation.

"Most of the textbooks, or even biology course professors explain essentially the ovaries give a signal, just a signal at the beginning, and the hypothalamus hormone starts the release," said Ei Terasawa, senior scientist at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and professor of pediatrics at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. 

By stopping estrogen from forming in rhesus macaque monkeys at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, Terasawa's team discovered estrogen from the ovaries starts the surge of hormones, but estrogen formed in the brain is the necessary last push to full ovulation. 

Without the help of estrogen produced by the monkeys' brains, the hormone release began, but fell short of the surge required for ovulation by about 70 percent. 

"It's not as simple as we thought," said Brian Kenealy, who earned his Ph.D. in Terasawa's lab. "This is the first time we're seen a physiological link between ovarian estrogen and brain estrogen."

These findings could explain problems with fertility treatments by targeting just the brain or just the ovaries.

It could also lead to the creation of a new form of birth control with fewer side effects. 

"In theory, someone can make a drug, a more effective contraceptive drug. That's what I think, but it's a long way to go," Terasawa said.

She said  doctors trying to help with infertility issues shouldn't just focus on the ovaries, but should also look at the brain. 

This is the first time researchers have seen a physiological link between ovarian estrogen and estrogen from the brain. 

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