For the first time, scientists have tied hot flashes to specific activity in certain regions of the brains of menopausal women — findings they say could lead to novel new drug treatments to cool the annoying spikes in body temperature that plague millions.
The research, conducted by neuroscientists at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, suggests the sudden but temporary episodes of body warmth, flushing, and sweating many women experience are caused by neurological reactions to temperature that could one day be treated with medicine.
"The idea of understanding brain responses during thermoregulatory events has spawned many studies where thermal stimuli were applied to the skin. But hot flashes are unique because they are internally generated, so studying them presents unique challenges," said Robert Freedman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences who helped conduct the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Freedman explained that the research team reached its conclusions by using magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of 20 postmenopausal women — ages 47 to 58 — as they experienced hot flashes over the course of a year.
The researchers focused on regions like the brain stem that have been implicated in the regulation of body temperature. The scans showed activity in some brain areas begins to rise before the actual onset of a hot flash.
"Our participants had to lie in the MRI scanner while being heated between two body-size heating pads for up to two hours while we waited for the onset of a hot flash," Freedman said. "They were heroic in this regard and the study could not have been conducted without their incredible level of cooperation."
The researchers are now exploring the possibilities of integrating imaging with treatment to examine whether specific drug therapies for menopause can affect brain activity in ways that can ease hot flashes.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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