The New Zealand Herald
Rewiring brains could restore women’s fertility — study
Women who struggle to have children because of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may in future be able to regain fertility by rewiring their brains, new research suggests.
PCOS is a hormonal disorder affecting about one woman in 10, with symptoms including weight gain, excess facial hair growth, and irregular periods. It is a leading cause of infertility. Although symptoms can be treated, there is no cure.
Promising research from the University of Otago suggests it may be possible to “reset” these women’s fertility to normal levels, by blocking the action of androgen hormones on their brains.
The idea delights Chelsea Lithgow, who was diagnosed with PCOS eight years ago when she met her partner.
“There was not much info on it at the time but it made sense for the symptoms I had,” she said.
When first diagnosed she was not too focused on children but later she and her partner wanted a baby.
Now she has been trying for seven years, with plans to try in vitro fertilisation this year. But that would cost $14,000 at least.
“We have been with fertility doctors and we have tried everything. IVF is the next step.”
The news that there was progress being made to restore fertility was “amazing” because having the condition was an “emotional journey”.
However, the Otago University research was pre-clinical, meaning it has not been tested on humans.
Growing evidence shows the brain — rather than ovaries — may be the key to PCOS. Pre-clinical research from the Otago group identified changes in brain circuitry that could underlie the disorder. The most recent study looked at when these changes happened and whether they were hard-wired or reversible.
PCOS sufferers often produce extra androgens, a group of steroid hormones associated with males. The researchers found blocking the actions of these androgens in mice rewired their brains and returned their reproductive cycles to normal.
The study was led by University of Otago Associate Professor Rebecca Campbell, with PhD student Mauro Silva and assistant research fellow Mel Prescott.
“Our findings suggest that despite the early development of brain pathology in some forms of polycystic ovary syndrome, normal reproductive function can potentially be restored in adult women with the disorder through modifying the wiring in the brain,” Campbell said.
The research has just been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight.
“We discovered that brain changes occur prior to the onset of puberty, which is before the syndrome appears, suggesting that the brain pathology precedes disease development,” Campbell said.
However, “we also discovered that despite this early ‘programming’ of neural circuitry, a long-term blockade of androgen actions was able to completely restore normal brain wiring and reproductive cycles”.
The work gave clues about which therapies could be effective, Campbell said. Her team was working with researchers in Sweden on whether women who had been taking androgen receptor blocker drugs in the past had undergone long-term reproductive changes.