The Brain: What Relationship Does It Have with Female Hormones?

Estrogen and testosterone are female hormones that are abundantly produced by the female body and greatly influence the functionality of the brain. Studies have shown that estrogen levels are closely related to certain unique aspects of the female brain. Estrogen affects emotional wellbeing through parts of the brain that control emotions.

In this article Professor Michela Matteoli, head of Humanitas hospital’s Neuroscience program and Director of the Institute of Neuroscience of the CNR (National Research Council of Italy), explains the relationship between female hormones and the brain.

How are the female hormones involved in the functioning of the brain?

“Female hormones control the development of the brain during prenatal development. They control: the growth of neurites (or extensions of neurons), the process of formation of synapses (or contacts between neurons), the formation of Myelin (the sheath that covers the extensions of neurons and facilitates the spread of electrical signal), as well as neuronal plasticity, the base of the learning process. In the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus contain high levels of estrogen and progesterone receptors”.

Changes in hormone levels throughout a woman’s life are reflected in the functionality of the brain. An important change in the level of hormones occurs after giving birth when a considerable number of women begin to complain about a disorder known as postpartum depression.

What happens during your menstrual cycle?

“Many women complain about negative emotions such as irritability, impulsivity and a depressed mood before their menstrual cycles. This condition was recently classified as a real pathological condition called PMT or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It is interesting that a neurotropic substance produced in our brain, BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), causes great alterations during the premenstrual dysphoric syndrome. BDNF is a factor that is now clearly shown to have association with depression. Moreover, it is no coincidence that antidepressant medications act by increasing levels of serotonin and BDNF” – concludes Professor Michela Matteoli.

Is there a link between postpartum depression, hormones and the brain?

“After childbirth – answers the specialist – estrogen levels are reduced by 100-1000 times over a period of a few days. A study that examined the female brain after birth showed a sudden increase in levels of an enzyme (monoamine oxidase A-class – MAOA). This enzyme degrades certain neurotransmitters, which are the molecules that mediate the transfer of information from one neuron to another, including serotonin. As a result, the serotonin would degraded to a greater degree. It is known that a reduction in the levels of serotonin is often associated with depression. It is believed that the decrease in estrogen levels during the first postnatal week, triggers a sudden increase of the enzyme that could explain the depressed mood that most mothers experience at this time.”


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.