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Mind Over Matter: Laura Pritschet Unveils Brainy Insights into Women’s Health

May 13, 2024 | For community

Laura Pritschet, a current post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, is a strong advocate for the importance of women’s health and exploring it via brain research. Her interest in women-centered neuroscience began through a combination of lived experiences, research experiences and coursework. 

“I was always interested in psychology, and later grew fascinated by the brain component to it. Joining a cognitive neuroscience lab showed me these two things can be connected together,” Laura said.  She was an undergraduate when she joined her first lab, a cognitive development lab studying children’s attitudes towards gender stereotypes. At the same time, she also joined a cognitive neuroscience lab, using MRI to study brain networks and how they might differ in depressed populations. Simultaneously, in her own personal life, she was witnessing women go through menopause and experience various cognitive complaints. When it all really came together for her, however, was in her undergraduate behavioral neuroscience course. This course had weekly journal clubs, and while Laura was fascinated by the animal science papers she read, she noticed quickly that there were not many papers focused on females. When she asked her TA why, he simply said: “Because females are too variable. They have an estrous cycle, and it’s too hard to study.”

Having seen the impact of menopause on cognition in those around her, Laura was not satisfied with this answer. “There was something there that was not getting enough attention,” Laura recalled. She was inspired to use the tools we have for studying the brain and applying them to study sex differences. Having graduated from UIUC with a B.S. in Psychology, she joined the lab of Emily Jacobs, a leading women’s brain health researcher at UCSB as a PhD student. This was her “aha” moment. Here, she was newly fascinated by the trajectory of women’s brain health over the lifespan. 

“Everyone knows about “mommy brain” during pregnancy. But it’s also a really interesting period of protracted plasticity (the brain’s ability to change in response to the environment). There are reductions in gray matter, but these are not harmful.” Laura expanded on pregnancies as a protective factor for later cognitive reductions during menopause. She likened brain changes during pregnancy to “a piece of stone. You’re etching it out. You do a lot in puberty and then again in pregnancy. You’re fine-tuning circuits wired to take care of offspring, responsible for significantly complex parental behavior. Your whole body’s physiology changes.” This requires an engagement of networks that experience cognitive decline during middle age, providing protection against cognitive decline during menopause. This to her, was the most consistent -- and beautiful -- finding across neuroscience.

Laura was also optimistic about the future of women’s brain health research and elaborated on its necessity. Women’s brain health has been historically understudied, with less than half a percent of MRI papers from 1995-2021 focusing on women, leading to a lack of understanding about what cyclic changes in hormones do to the brain. Understanding this is a key to understanding brain development. Men, too, experience a diurnal hormonal cycle -- while different from women’s, it means that understudying hormonal influences on the brain is critical to furthering neuroscience for everyone. Moreover, until recently, there were no studies investigating what pregnancy does to the brain, or menopause -- despite the fact that 70% of women complain about neurological symptoms in midlife. Women make up nearly half of the population, and half of the taxpayers, Laura argued, and require more careful study. 

Recently, more attention has been brought to women’s brain health. The White House proposed a 12 billion dollar bill for women’s health research, with a large proportion of that sum going towards neuroscience. A lot of papers have been coming out about women’s health as well, with pioneers such as Emily Jacobs and Laura leading studies like “28andMe”- in which a participant underwent brain imaging and venipuncture over 30 consecutive days across a complete menstrual cycle, followed by 30 consecutive days on an oral hormonal contraceptive regimen one year later (Pritschet et al., 2021).  Studying the brain in women requires a unique design, one that could study a participant over 28 days. “It’s more about the dynamics [of hormones] rather than the concentration of hormones, and how women’s bodies respond to the dynamics,” Laura said. Work from the 28andMe study suggested that brains are responsive to a timescale previously unexpected:  in animals, neuronal features change with hormone dynamics. Surprisingly, they do in humans as well, over the estrous cycle. If anything, this shows the need for more research on hormone-influenced brain changes. 

The future of the field, Laura believes, requires a lot of people with strong computational skills, who didn’t know they could ask questions about women’s health. It requires questions from people who think about aging differently. This is a decisive inflection point for women’s health research, but the future must be carved out carefully. This necessitates collaboration, data sharing, and making up for lost time. Through the first half of Laura’s PhD, there was not much momentum in her field. Now that there is, it cannot be squandered. Still, women’s brain health is a nuanced topic, and should not be studied rashly or too quickly. In other words, the time is ripe to capitalize on women’s brain research, but the field should not be inundated. It is important that the field is composed of diverse voices and perspectives, with women taking the lead on issues that so clearly impact them. 

Future researchers should also take advantage of the newly growing field. To them, Laura imparts her wisdom: “Our academic structure is such that you do your lab’s methods and answer your lab’s questions and don’t really question it. I encourage trainees, especially those in women’s health, to sit back and challenge dogmas.” This was how researchers realized how important biological sex was in their analyses, and that depression is more prevalent in females. People can investigate women’s health in simple ways. They can separate samples by sex for example, or think about studies in relationship to puberty, thus challenging a standard convention and making science more equitable for both sexes. “Speaking as a woman,” Laura concluded, “our experiences are real, and they vary, but they should be incorporated into science.”

This article is provided by the Flux Communications Committee; would you like to joining the Flux Comcom? Contact the Flux Executive Office for more information. 

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Kahini Mehta

Kahini Mehta

University of Pennsylvania | Flux Comcom Member

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