Cognitive changes across the menopause transition: a longitudinal evaluation of the impact of age and ovarian status on spatial memory
Aging and the menopause transition are both intricately linked to cognitive changes
during mid-life and beyond. Clinical literature suggests the age at menopause onset can differentially impact cognitive status later in life. Yet, little is known about the relationship between behavioral and brain changes that occur during the transitional stage into the post-menopausal state. Much of the pre-clinical work evaluating an animal model of menopause involves ovariectomy in rodents; however, ovariectomy results in an abrupt loss of circulating hormones and ovarian tissue, limiting the ability to evaluate gradual follicular depletion. The 4-vinylcyclohexene diepoxide (VCD) model simulates transitional menopause in rodents by selectively depleting the immature ovarian follicle reserve and allowing animals to retain their follicle-deplete ovarian tissue, resulting in a profile similar to the majority of menopausal women. Here, Vehicle or VCD treatment was administered to ovary-intact adult and middle-aged Fischer-344 rats to assess the cognitive effects of transitional menopause via VCD-induced follicular depletion over time, as well as to understand potential interactions with age, with VCD treatment beginning at either six or twelve months of age. Results indicated that subjects that experience menopause onset at a younger age had impaired spatial working memory early in the transition to a follicle-deplete state. Moreover, in the mid- and post- menopause time points, VCD-induced follicular depletion amplified an age effect, whereby Middle-Aged VCD-treated animals had poorer spatial working and reference memory performance than Young VCD-treated animals. Correlations suggested that in middle age, animals with higher circulating estrogen levels tended to perform better on spatial memory tasks. Overall, these findings suggest that the age at menopause onset is a critical parameter to consider when evaluating learning and memory across the transition to reproductive senescence. From a translational perspective, this study informs the field with respect to how the age at menopause onset might impact cognition in menopausal women, as well as provides insight into time points to explore for the window of opportunity for hormone therapy during the menopause transition to attenuate age- and menopause- related cognitive decline, and produce healthy brain aging profiles in women who retain their ovaries throughout the lifespan.