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Scientists Identify Neural Origins of Hot Flashes in Menopausal Women

Study may lead to new treatments (July 15)

A study by neuroscientists at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, provides the first new insights into the neural origins of hot flashes in menopausal women in years. The findings may eventually lead to new treatments for those who experience the sudden but temporary episodes of body warmth, flushing, and sweating, according to the investigators.

The new study was published in Cerebral Cortex.

During the course of a single year, 20 healthy, symptomatic postmenopausal women aged 47 to 58 years who reported six or more hot flashes a day underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain at the School of Medicine’s imaging center.

The researchers collected skin conductance levels to identify the onset of hot flashes while the women were being scanned. Skin conductance is an electrical measure of sweating. The women were connected to a simple circuit that passed a very small current across their chests. Changes in conductance levels allowed researchers to identify the onset of a hot flash. They also analyzed the concurrently acquired fMRI data to investigate the neural precedents and correlates of the event.

The researchers focused on regions such as the brain stem because its subregions, such as the medullary and dorsal raphe, are implicated in thermal regulation, while forebrain regions, such as the insula, have been implicated in the personal perception of how someone feels. The investigators found that activity in some brain areas, such as the brain stem, begins to rise before the onset of a hot flash.

These results point to plausible origins of hot flashes in specific brain regions. The researchers believe it is the first such demonstration in academic literature.

The investigators also are exploring possibilities for integrating imaging with treatment to examine whether specific pharmacotherapies for menopause might alter regional brain responses.

Source: Wayne State University; July 15, 2013.

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