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Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2002 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-16.

Neurobehavioral effects of dietary soy phytoestrogens.

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Neuroscience Center, 633 WIDB, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 86402, USA.


Phytoestrogens, plant-derived nonsteroidal estrogens found in high abundance in most soy food products, have been studied for their potential beneficial effects against hormone-dependent cancers and age-related diseases. However, little is known about the influence of phytoestrogens on the brain or behavior. This brief review describes mainly our own studies in rodents that have examined the influence of dietary soy isoflavones on certain aspects of brain structure, learning, memory and anxiety along with the brain androgen-metabolizing enzyme, aromatase. These studies used a commercially available diet rich in phytoestrogens (Phyto-rich) vs. a custom diet relatively free of phytoestrogens (Phyto-free). The phytoestrogen content of each diet was determined by high-performance liquid chromatography analysis, circulating plasma phytoestrogen levels were quantified by gas chromatography mass spectroscopy and concentrations of phytoestrogens in specific brain regions were measured by time-resolved fluoroimmunoassay (TR-FIA). Our studies showed that brain aromatase levels were not significantly altered by phytoestrogen diet treatments in perinatal, maternal or adult rats. However, volumes of the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area (SDN-POA) were significantly affected by the Phyto-free diet treatment in male rats during adulthood, where SDN-POA volumes were smaller compared to Phyto-rich male values. Additionally, the Phyto-rich diet fed to adult male and female rats produced anxiolytic effects as assessed in the elevated plus maze vs. Phyto-free fed animals. Finally, when learning and memory parameters were examined in a radial arm maze testing visual-spatial memory (VSM), the diet treatments significantly changed the typical sexually dimorphic pattern of VSM. Specifically, adult Phyto-rich fed females outperformed Phyto-free fed females, while in males on the same diets, the opposite pattern of maze performance was observed. When female vs. male performance was compared, Phyto-rich females executed the VSM task in a manner similar to that of Phyto-free fed males, while Phyto-free fed female's VSM was comparable to Phyto-rich males. These results indicate that consumption of dietary phytoestrogens resulting in very high plasma isoflavone levels (in many cases over a relatively short interval of consumption in adulthood) can significantly alter sexually dimorphic brain regions, anxiety, learning and memory. The findings of these studies identify the biological actions of phytoestrogens, specifically isoflavones and their metabolites, found in animal soy-containing diets on brain and behavior and implicate the importance of phytoestrogens given the recognized significance of estrogens in brain and neural disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, especially in women.

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