Hot flashes are part of almost every woman’s life. Often humorously referred to, they are a common feeling among menopausal women, but that does not mean that they are pleasant.
Intense heat, sweating and warm skin are some of the symptoms that plague approximately 75 percent of premenopausal women. However, a remedy now comes that can ease these uncomfortable symptoms of hot flashes.
Dr. Naomi Rance is a physician and researcher at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, Arizona. She is also personally affected by hot flashes. After she experienced her first hot flash, she decided to take on a project to examine why these symptoms occur and how they can be treated.
“I started off with a very straightforward project,” said Rance. “I was going to examine the hypothalamus in women’s brains before and after the menopause. I found that a group of neurons got bigger in the brains of postmenopausal women and that was what was shocking at the time. Usually, with aging, things don’t get bigger, they get smaller.”
In her research, Rance realized that the same neurons that control reproduction also account for hot flashes. These neurons help to control body temperature through estrogen, which ties the hormonal and reproductive system to thermoregulation in a way that has not been understood before.
“That was really a sign that the reproductive axis is integrated with thermoregulation,” Rance said. “The two systems are intimately integrated.”
Rance tested her hypothesis in mice, stimulating the suspected neurons to produce the hormones she thought might be causing the hot flashes. They found that the hot flashes occurred when estrogen levels were low, causing the neurons to produce and release neurokinin B into the brain areas that control body temperature. Neurokinin B is a peptide associated with pregnancy and puberty. When it is released into the brain or destroyed, it can cause body temperature to change suddenly and dramatically.
Rance continues to research this connection between neurons and body temperature regulation, and her findings have sparked the attention of other scientists who are assisting her in bringing a drug treatment for hot flashes to life. Particularly, Dr. Waljit Dhillo of the Imperial College in London, England hypothesized that using an antagonist to the neurokinin B could prevent hot flashes from happening.
“Dhillo said that he and his colleagues… realized that neurokinin 3 antagonists could be used as a treatment for hot flushes,” said Rance. “He took the idea to the clinical arena very fast. The first thing he did was infuse women with neurokinin B, and found that it caused hot flashes.”
The drug has been tested in women experiencing hot flashes. Seventy-three percent of them reported less frequency of hot flashes and said that they were much more tolerable. Rance continues her research into the effect of neurons on thermoregulation, and the drug will continue to be tested in further trials.