THURSDAY, Dec. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists are getting warmer in their attempts to zero in on what causes hot flashes, intense surges of heat and sweating that affect millions of middle-aged women in the years leading to menopause.
Studying rats, researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, in Tucson, have pinpointed a small region of the brain that may go awry during typical hot flashes, finding that a certain set of neurons acts as a virtual control switch for the problem when estrogen levels drop.
"I think the idea is to develop some alternate treatments for hot flashes, but how could we possibly develop appropriate treatments if we don't know what causes them?" said study author Dr. Naomi Rance, a neuropathologist, professor and associate head of pathology at the university. "This is the first evidence these neurons have anything to do with [heat] regulation."
Scientists note, however, that research with animals often fails to provide similar results in humans.
The study appeared recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
An estimated 70 percent of women -- along with some men -- experience hot flashes, and previous research indicated the flashes originated in the hypothalamus, a section of the brain serving as the "switchboard" between hormone signals and the central nervous system.
University of Pittsburgh scientists published a study earlier this year showing that the parasympathetic nervous system -- part of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing -- isn't working as efficiently as normal during a hot flash.
In the new research, Rance and her colleagues created an animal model of menopause by using a toxin to deactivate a group of brain cells known as KNDy (pronounced "candy") neurons in rats. After these neurons were
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