NIH Grant Advances Research on Women's Brains, Menopause and Alzheimer's Risk


By suppressing estrogen activity in cells, researchers explore how decreased estrogen affects the brain during menopause. Actin, the cell’s "skeleton" is shown in white and the nuclei are shown in blue. The mitochondria, which powers the cells, are dyed orange.

Worldwide, women are twice as likely over their lifetime to develop Alzheimer's disease.

Seeking to unravel the biological complexities of this increased risk, Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science and Regents Professor of Pharmacology, has been awarded a $15.1 million grant from the National Institutes on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The grant will allow Brinton to continue research to reveal the transformations in the brain that occur during female midlife aging that lead to greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Roberta Diaz Brinton

Roberta Diaz Brinton

"Our research has shown that women are at greater risk for Alzheimer's disease not because they live longer than men, but because the disease can start earlier in women, at midlife during their menopausal transition," Brinton said. "With the continuation of this grant funding from the National Institutes on Aging, we will continue to advance mechanistic, clinical and population discovery science and translate these discoveries into a platform for precision medicine to prevent, delay and treat Alzheimer's disease."

Brinton and her Center for Innovation in Brain Science colleagues Fei YinKathleen Rodgers, Francesca Vitali and Tian Wang, along with Lisa Mosconi of the Weill Cornell Medical College, are focused on the earliest events that can occur during female midlife aging that can increase risk for Alzheimer's disease in later life. The average age for diagnosis is in a person's 70s, so the researchers are focused on what happens in the female brain during the 50s. The midlife aging transition of menopause could be the trigger for the start of the prodromal phase of Alzheimer's.

"The Center for Innovation in Brain Science has emerged as the vanguard for innovative Alzheimer's disease research," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Dr. Brinton and her team have the potential to make a transformational impact on the health of millions of women around the world. This award further illustrates the University of Arizona Health Sciences' strength in aging research and our commitment to address critical global health challenges."

Each year, approximately 1.5 million American women enter into perimenopause, a neuroendocrine transition state unique to females. As of 2020, there were 45 million women in the U.S. over the age of 55. Globally, there are 850 million women between the ages of 40 and 60.

Alzheimer's is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

This award is the fourth five-year extension of the NIH-funded Program Project Grant. Prior funding has allowed Brinton and her team to develop an integrated program to investigate the molecular, cellular and systems biology of immune signaling in the brain that initiate and drive advancement of the disease. Through an innovative research model, Brinton is working to develop neuro-immune biomarkers specific to stages of brain aging and create a platform for precision therapeutics.

This research is supported by the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health (2PO1AG026572-16). 

A version of this article originally appeared on the University of Arizona Health Sciences website:

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