Emily C. Jacobs, PhD
Suppose there were a scientist who spent his life searching for the key to some great mystery. And suppose the apparatus he used to try to solve the mystery was broken, restricting its power by half. Say, a microscope whose left lens had cracked. Arguably, the science would be slowed, or worse, flawed.
Why, then, do we accept this practice within the biological sciences, where the majority of basic research uses male animals (Beery and Zucker, 2010)? As a recent Institute of Medicine report illustrates, basic and medical science research has historically ignored the health needs of women. The limitations of this research tradition strike at two levels: by studying a single sex the science itself is incomplete and the health needs of women are overlooked.
In graduate school, I began investigating the impact of ovarian hormones on frontal lobe function in humans. Using fMRI, pharmacogenomic and behavioral methods I examined how natural fluctuations in estradiol during a woman's menstrual cycle modulates neurochemical circuits, in turn shaping brain function and behavior.
My work is aimed at understanding the role sex hormones play in shaping the function of the frontal lobe. From a basic science perspective, an intimate understanding of how our endocrine system impacts neural and cognitive processes is necessary for establishing better models of brain function. From a women's health perspective, understanding estrogen's role in the brain is essential for advancing the health needs of half the population. A man and woman's milieu differ; until we understand how, we cannot fully understand neural processes as they unfold in the healthy state, less still in the diseased state.
This research seeks to clarify the impact of sex hormones on brain morphology and behavior, with the purpose of understanding the extent to which neuroactive hormones are relevant to observable sex differences in neurological disorders and normal aging trajectories at the population level. Ovarian hormones are neuroactive, with estrogen receptor expression evident throughout the frontal lobe (and beyond) and evidence for de novo estradiol synthesis in cortex. More human studies are needed to fully examine the health-related consequences of this relationship. We are probing this line of research on two levels, pairing large-scale exploratory analyses with controlled studies of ovarian hormones.
Next year and the years to come, Emily is excited to apply her training in neuroscience to probe, from a sex hormones perspective, why people may be more or less resilient to cognitive dysfunction under stress and why people experience different cognitive trajectories from adulthood to old age (with an emphasis on 'brain health' across the menopausal transition).
Emily received her BA from Smith College in 2004 and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley. She grew up in southern Illinois. She loves Martha Nussbaum, bromeliads, bluegrass and morning buns from Tartine. In October, she married Michael Goard in Big Sur, Calif.