11 June 2020

No ovaries, no oestrogen - but higher risk of brain problems. That relationship interests neuroscientist Gillian Einstein. She is investigating what happens to women’s brains and health when their production of oestrogen stops.

Gillian Einstein guest professor in Gender Studies at the Department of Thematic studies, LiU.
Gillian Einstein guest professor in Gender Studies at the Department of Thematic studies, LiU.  Ulrik Svedin
One gene mutation — BRCA1/2 — increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Roughly 0.5% of women have this mutation. They are recommended to have their ovaries removed, a procedure that causes their production of oestrogen to cease.
“The surgery reduces the risk of cancer. But we don’t know enough about how women’s health is affected when their oestrogen disappears. For instance we suspect it can affect memory, and many other areas. We need to get in contact with women who have this mutation – they can really make a contribution.”

Interviews

Robin Kämpe, research engineer at Center for social and affective neuroscience, presents brain scan pictures for Gillian Einstein.Robin Kämpe, research engineer at Center for social and affective neuroscience, presents brain scan pictures for Gillian Einstein. Photo credit Ulrik SvedinProfessor Gillian Einstein shares her time between the University of Toronto and Linköping University, where she is guest professor in Gender Studies at the Department of Thematic studies, LiU, and affiliated with the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences as well as the Women’s Clinic at Linköping University Hospital. In Linköping she leads a research group of roughly ten people from across the university. They monitor women who have had their ovaries removed, comparing them with women who still have their ovaries and women who receive oestrogen replacement. Gillian Einstein’s approach is that you have to consider the effects on the entire body: the brain, the immune system, the skeleton. This means that the study includes everything from blood tests and MRI brain scans to genetic testing and qualitative studies in the form of interviews. 
“The interviews, conducted in collaboration with Tema Genus are especially important as they provide insight into how the changes have affected the women´s lives.”

Affects the whole body

Many women are very positive about having had the surgery, as it reduces the risk of cancer. 
“But in the meantime, they experience problems with sexuality and memory. Many wish they had received more support after the surgery.”
“There are many different factors to compare. My philosophy in doing research, is you have to put it in a context. When you do something to one body system, for instance to the ovaries, it affects the whole body. Women who have had breast cancer can’t take oestrogen, for instance. Here we need a broader perspective in order to help the women and the healthcare system make well-informed decisions.”

The visual system

Åsa Rydmark-Kersley, nurse at the University Hospital in Linköping, in a discussion with Laurice Karkaby, research engineer in at the LiU thematic Gender studies and Gillian Einstein. Åsa Rydmark-Kersley, nurse at the University Hospital in Linköping, in a discussion with Laurice Karkaby, research engineer in at the LiU thematic Gender studies and Gillian Einstein. Photo credit Ulrik SvedinGillian Einstein began her studies with four years of art history, where she became interested in the human visual system. This led her to neurobiology, and in 1984 she completed a doctorate in neuroanatomy with a focus on the visual system.
“Putting together the visual image is strongly related to Alzheimer’s, which in turn is a disease that affects women more than men. About 70% of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women. Since the 1990s I’ve investigated the relationship between oestrogen production and memory.”

This makes the group of women who must have their ovaries removed as a preventive measure of particular interest.
“I chose the group with the genetic mutation BRCA1/2 because these women have one thing in common: they are at risk of cancer but otherwise are relatively healthy. It’s good to know why they have the surgery, and that they have it for the same reason.”

What do you hope to achieve with your research?
“I hope to give women at risk for Alzheimer’s treatment choices before they reach the menopause, and I want to understand why so many women develop Alzheimer’s.”

What personality do you need, to be a researcher?
“Researchers are very goal-oriented, very focussed on their thing. But we need to do research that benefits society. A good researcher has lots of ideas and can turn them into reality.”

And, finally, what is your relation to the famous physicist Albert Einstein?
“We are related. My grandfather investigated this. He actually contacted Albert, and they concluded that they were cousins – but it’s nothing more than that. It has never affected me, except for when I have a bad hair day – then my friends call me Albert! 
(Translation: Martin Mirko)

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