Brain Health in Pregnancy, Menopause, and Beyond — Is There a Link with Alzheimer’s Disease?

Women's Health Blog
4 min readJan 5, 2024

Interviewee: Alesia V. Prakapenka, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Sciences, College of Graduate Studies, Midwestern University Authors/Editors: Romina Garcia de leon, Shayda Swann (Blog Co-coordinators)

Published: January 5, 2024

Could you tell us more about the work you do in women’s health?

In my lab, we use animal models to understand how hormones impact brain and behavioral health within females and we take on a lifespan approach. We recently were awarded a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to investigate the relationship between pregnancy, age, and menopause on healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease progression in female rodent models. We’re very excited to get that work started. Primary outcomes include both short-term and long-term memory measures, as well as evaluation of memory types that engage different brain regions, including hippocampus, frontal cortex, and striatum. We’re also interested in anxiety-like and depressive-like behaviors as these are modulated by hormones and are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

How did you become involved in this field?

I’m fascinated by how learning, memory, and the brain works in general. When I was in high school, I took a psychology class and one of the units was on the brain. That sparked my interest, and I really wanted to learn more about what we know and what we don’t know about the brain. As an undergraduate, I got involved in research in a lab that used animal models to study learning and memory, and one interesting aspect of it was that the lab only worked with male animals. That got me thinking and looking more into the research on how learning and memory works in males versus females. To me, it seemed like there was a gap in understanding female learning, memory, and brain functions compared to males. So, for graduate school, I pursued research that focused specifically on female learning and memory with my co-mentors, Drs. Heather Bimonte-Nelson and Rachael Sirianni. Specifically, I worked on developing strategies to target the delivery of hormones, such as estrogens, to the brain to optimize their cognitive effects in females. My graduate research led to many more questions than answers regarding hormones and female health, which I am excited to continue to research.

What does a typical day in your field look like?

If we’re working with the animals, the timelines are planned out months in advance. With this new project looking at pregnancy and Alzheimer’s disease, for example, we have a schedule set for 2–3 years because we are working with animals throughout their lifespan. Some days, we’re administering treatments, checking in on the health of animals, or testing behavior and memory tasks. And then other days we’re getting to work with the tissue — process it, tag it with antibodies, and then visualize it. And then other days we’re on a computer looking at lots and lots of spreadsheets, analyzing the data and putting it together to understand and share what we find.

Are there any interesting findings from your work that you’d like to highlight?

My lab is in its second year, so our data collection is currently very fresh and ongoing. For example, as we establish our behavior tasks and protocols in the lab, we are finding that dose-dependent effects of 17beta-estradiol on spontaneous alternation behaviors are modulated by specific task parameters in female rats. And although we do not yet have findings from our lab for our recently funded work, I’d love to highlight valuable findings from other labs’ in the field that informed and sparked this research direction. There are multiple findings, for example, showing that pregnancy is neuroprotective and beneficial for female brain health. There’s also some evidence to suggest that pregnancy can be associated with increased Alzheimer’s disease risk. So, we aim to investigate factors, such as age and menopause type, that may help explain the disparate effects of pregnancy on healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis.

What impact do you hope to see with your work?

The impact I hope to see with my work is rooted in student mentorship. Majority of students that I work with are either on a pre-healthcare career path or in their first or second year of medical or dental school. My approach is to mentor students, most of whom will be future healthcare professionals and inevitably working with the female population, to appreciate the complexity of female health and embrace it. I hope to help them understand the research on female health, critically analyze it, and appreciate it so that when they are forming that medical plan for an individual, they can be comfortable addressing female-specific health aspects.

Look out for Dr. Prakapenka’s upcoming work funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, through the Sex and Gender in Alzheimer’s Award, titled ‘Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis in mothers: a role for age and menopause’.



Women's Health Blog

The Women's Health Blog brings you content to demystify women’s health while reflecting the multifaceted nature of women and gender-diverse people.