ASU neuroscientist awarded $1.6M to study brain health during menopause

September 17, 2013

Maintaining your health as you age can be a challenge, especially when some body functions cease or decrease over time. For example, when women go through menopause, their ovaries reduce production of several essential hormones. This causes a slew of adverse effects that can include impairment of brain functions. While hormone therapies can alleviate these effects, they also pose their own health risks.

Heather Bimonte-Nelson, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, is working to find the optimal hormone profile for menopausal women, or what she calls “that key, beautiful balance that will result in a healthy aging brain.” She was recently awarded $1.6 million by the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health, to pursue this goal. Heather Bimonte-Nelson Download Full Image

This is a renewal of research started about five years ago by Bimonte-Nelson, who leads the Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She and her team of students have already produced more than 20 journal publications in the initial grant period.

Through the new award, Bimonte-Nelson and her team plan to identify the optimal treatments for women going through both surgical and transitional menopause, which require very different considerations.

Transitional menopause happens when a woman’s menstrual cycle and fertility end naturally. The ovaries begin producing less estrogen and progesterone, but continue pumping out androgen, which Bimonte-Nelson’s lab has recently linked to memory problems in animal studies.

Surgical menopause happens when the ovaries are removed, usually to treat conditions like ovarian cancer or severe endometriosis. As a result, the ovaries no longer release estrogen, progesterone or androgen into the body.

In both cases, the reduction of hormones can lead to bone density loss, hot flashes and other symptoms, which is why women typically turn to hormone therapies. However, menopause can have cognitive effects as well.

As estrogen and progesterone levels decrease in transitional menopause, an androgen called androstenedione becomes the primary hormone released from the ovaries. High levels of this androgen have been linked to memory impairment in Bimonte-Nelson’s lab. The results have been replicated three times.

Most hormone therapies for transitional menopause include estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen alone can improve cognition, but it is also well-known to increase the risk of uterine cancer. Adding progesterone reduces this cancer risk. But studies in Bimonte-Nelson’s lab suggest that it negates estrogen’s benefits to memory.

“Our approach is to take each of these hormone classes – estrogens, progestins and androgens – optimize them individually, and then combine them to find a therapy that will work to optimize brain aging without increasing the risk of cancer,” says Bimonte-Nelson.

Graduate students in the Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Laboratory will explore different aspects of the project. Sarah Mennenga, a doctoral candidate in psychology, will look at how the hormones used in birth control can be applied to women going through menopause. Bryan Camp, also a doctoral candidate in psychology, is detailing the new line of research into the role androgens play during menopause.

First-year doctoral student Stephanie Koebele is testing the details of cognitive aging with different menopause parameters. Postdoctoral fellow Sheri Hiroi will examine whether depression relates to the associations between hormones and memory during aging.

The lab’s many efforts are further enriched by undergraduate and high school students working hard in the laboratory, according to Bimonte-Nelson. She credits her large team of students for creating an innovative and explorative environment where, she says, success is inevitable.

“I am not sure how I ended up with the great benefit of working in this environment that nurtures creative and innovative approaches to tough scientific problems, and having the amazing students that I do, but I feel very lucky,” she says. “It’s an equation that results in success.”

Written by Pete Zrioka, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development

Director, Knowledge Enterprise Development


Murphy joins the running for faculty, staff's 'Most Spirited Sun Devil'

September 18, 2013

It has been just over a week since Haley Burrow was announced as the first finalist competing for the title of ASU faculty and staff’s “Most Spirited Sun Devil.” This past Saturday, at the ASU vs. Wisconsin Blackout Game, Ana Murphy joined the running as the second official finalist.

Born and raised in Mesa, Ariz., Murphy has been a lifelong Sun Devil with deep family roots in ASU. Both of her parents graduated from the university, as well as her brother, sister and several members of her extended family. The tradition continues with Murphy’s eldest son, who is a first-year Sun Devil. Sun Devils Download Full Image

Murphy graduated from ASU in 1982 with a bachelor’s in nursing and received her master’s in nursing from the university in 1993. She began teaching at ASU in the fall of 2012 and is currently a nursing instructor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Congratulations Ana, and thank you for being a great example of Sun Devil spirit!  

To learn more about this die-hard Devil, check out our Q&A with her below.

Q: How do you show your Sun Devil spirit?

A: I show my spirit with lots of Maroon and Gold apparel: T-shirts, sweatpants, sweatshirts and even my scrubs. I also have ASU blankets, cups and car decals. I have been a season ticket holder since I was 10 years old. The only time I did not have season tickets was when I served seven years in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps.

My family and I have had a block of tickets in the south end zone for over 40 years.

Q: Why is having spirit important?

A: Having pride in your school and educational program is so important to the atmosphere of a college campus. I feel ASU alums, like myself, are best equipped to carry on the spirit that we had as students and pass it on to our community and current students. When I hear stories from my students that have come from all over the country and the world to receive their nursing education here at ASU, I feel it is my responsibility to provide them with a positive and enthusiastic environment that gets them excited about their education, their future career in nursing and makes them feel confident that they made the right decision by coming to ASU.

Q: Why do you love being a Sun Devil?

A: I love being a Sun Devil because it is who I am; I couldn’t imagine being anything but.

Q: What is your favorite ASU tradition?

A: Just being at the football games and all the excitement that goes with it, like tailgating, crowd-watching, wearing every variation of ASU spirit wear, and Sparky doing his push-ups after each touchdown.

Q: What ASU event/s do you most look forward to?

A: I love to hear about all the exciting things going on at ASU, whether its academics, sports, fine arts, social activities, etc. The events I most look forward to are the nursing graduation ceremonies, football games and women’s gymnastics meets.

Q: What is your fondest ASU memory?

A: Watching my father, who graduated from ASU in 1947, continue to organize and chair his reunions every single year with his beloved ASU club, Los Conquistadores, every single homecoming weekend until his passing last year at age 94.

Q: What makes you the Most Spirited Sun Devil?

A: I believe it is my ultimate duty as a lifelong Sun Devil to spread the Sun Devil spirit and pride to my students – the next generation of “Most Spirited Sun Devils!”

Q: Maroon or Gold?

A: I love them both; Maroon is all over my house, but for ASU spirit, definitely Gold. It is the color that pops in the crowd. There’s nothing like a stadium full of Gold shirts to make a statement!

Q: Anything else you’d like to share about ASU spirit/Sun Devil pride?

A: I am honored to be given the opportunity to teach at ASU. Go Devils!

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

(480) 965-9657