The researchers suggest this "designer estrogen" could be used to treat brain deterioration in a variety of conditions including Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, spinal cord injury and even natural aging.
The experimental estrogen has only been tested on mice so far, but in those studies it halted the progress of the disease in mice infected with the animal version of the autoimmune disease MS. The animals also recovered their ability to walk again.
The hormone does not have anti-inflammatory properties like regular estrogen because it has been adapted so that it does not express certain proteins that could cause cancer in women pre-disposed to malignancies of the breast or uterus.
As a result, this form of estrogen would have to be combined with other treatments that combat the inflammation that is seen in MS and other illnesses, researchers said.
"The main thing is to be neuroprotective. That's what's lacking in the field," said Seema Tiwari-Woodruff, an assistant professor of neurology at University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine who worked on the study.
While people with MS have many choices for anti-inflammatory drugs to help prevent flare-ups of their physical symptoms, no medication exists to stop the disorder from causing degeneration of the brain and spinal cord.
The UCLA findings offer potential for a "designer estrogen" that doctors could prescribe as part of an MS cocktail and also in higher doses without increasing a woman's cancer risk.
The study is published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.