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Sex hormones have been implicated in neurite outgrowth, synaptogenesis, dendritic branching, myelination and other important mechanisms of neural plasticity. Here we review the evidence from animal experiments and human studies reporting interactions between sex hormones and the dominant neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA and glutamate.
We provide an overview of accumulating data during physiological and pathological conditions and discuss currently conceptualized theories on how sex hormones potentially trigger neuroplasticity changes through these four neurochemical systems.
Many brain regions have been demonstrated to express high densities for estrogen- and progesterone receptors, such as the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus. As the hippocampus is of particular relevance in the context of mediating structural plasticity in the adult brain, we put particular emphasis on what evidence could be gathered thus far that links differences in behavior, neurochemical patterns and hippocampal structure to a changing hormonal environment.
Finally, we discuss how physiologically occurring hormonal transition periods in humans can be used to model how changes in sex hormones influence functional connectivity, neurotransmission and brain structure in vivo. Over the last decades, several lines of research have extended the pivotal actions of ovarian hormones such as estrogen and progesterone outside of the reproductive tract.
The brain represents an important target for estrogen and progesterone effects. Both hormones provide specific neuroendocrine conditions through which brain structure and function are modulated across a woman's life span.