Unraveling Individual Variability in Hormonal Mood Swings

Guest post by Brenda Patoine

The stereotype of women’s “inexplicable” mood swings has long provided fodder for comics and cartoonists, but for scientists trying to understand the underlying biology, hormonal depression is no joke.

Endocrine-related affective mood disorders show up in different forms in different phases of life, from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) during otherwise normal menstrual cycling, to post-partum depression following childbirth, to mood disruptions around and after menopause. Yet these disorders don’t affect all women, and in fact, most women do not experience them.

“How is it that some women experience a change in affective state as a result of hormones whereas a majority of women do not?” Peter Schmidt, M.D. asked in a July 8 webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “That really is the million-dollar question.”

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MS: What We Know and What We Need to Learn

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease that can affect a person’s mobility and basic body functions. While we have learned more about this disease and treatments, there is much more to know, according to David Hafler, M.D., and Benjamin A. Lerner, a medical student and research fellow at Yale School of Medicine, authors of the latest Report on Progress.

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How Stem Cells Build a Complex Brain

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

Within the brain’s complexity is the diversity of its 10 billion neurons: large, small, thin, fat, connected by long fibrils or short bushy ones. Some produce the neurotransmitter serotonin; others dopamine or norepinephrine. How this abundance of forms arises is a mystery we are just starting to penetrate.

It’s of more than mere theoretical interest, says Minoree Kohwi, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. “Knowing how the brain is built, piece by piece, from the ground up, may give critical clues as to what goes wrong to cause diseases, and ultimately help us prevent or cure them.” It may even, someday, allow us to make neurons to replace those lost to injury or aging.

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Putting Genetic Studies into Perspective

The genetics field has grown dramatically in recent years as we look to our DNA to explain our health and predict future diseases and disorders. At-home genetic testing kits are readily available and relatively affordable these days, though the tests may not live up to the hype and raise some ethical questions.

Beyond pursuing answers about our health, researchers, funders, and the public have grown increasingly interested in behavioral genetics, as we seek insight into cognition, intelligence, and personality. But don’t be too quick to buy into simple causal explanations about why you may have certain traits. For example, scientists argued in a New York Magazine article last year that Catechol-O-methyl transference may cause certain people to handle stress better than others. In our new briefing paper, “How Should We Be Thinking About Genetic Studies?” a number of experts note that the science is not that clear-cut:

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New in Cerebrum: The Latest on Migraine and Sleep

A front-page headline of the Nov. 19 New York Times read: “Sleep Therapy Seen as an Aid to Depression.” A few days later, an editorial on the topic chimed in with: “Most psychiatrists have very little training in dealing with insomnia. As the head of the Duke University study told Mr. [Benedict] Carey, psychiatrists have largely ignored the body’s complex circadian cycles.” Migraine image

Psychiatry’s loss may be neuroscience’s gain, however, as recent advances in understanding the relationship among the circadian rhythms, the brain’s hypothalamus,and a mutated gene suggest. The topic is the focus of “Migraine and Sleep: New Connections,” our Cerebrum feature for December.

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