Women who struggle to have children due to polycystic ovary syndrome may in future be able to regain fertility by rewiring their brains, new research suggests.
PCOS is a hormonal disorder affecting roughly one woman in 10, with symptoms including weight gain, excess facial hair growth, and irregular periods.
It is one of the leading causes of infertility in women. Although symptoms can be treated, there is no known cure.
Promising research from the University of Otago suggests it may be possible to "reset" these women's fertility to normal levels, by blocking the action of androgen hormones on their brains.
That is music to the ears of Chelsea Lithgow, who was first diagnosed with PCOS eight years ago when she first met her partner.
The conversation that she might have PCOS came up when the Te Awamutu local was chatting to her makeup artists and after they discussed some of the symptoms, Lithgow was tested and was confirmed to have the condition.
"There was not much info on it at the time but it made sense for the symptoms I had."
When she was first diagnosed she was not too focused on wanting to have a child but as time went on she and her partner wanted to have a baby.
Now she has been trying for seven years and was trying to keep positive with plans to try in vitro fertilisation later this year.
But that was an expensive procedure that would cost $14,000 at least.
"We have been with fertility doctors and we have tried everything. IVF is the next step."
The news that there was progress being made to regain fertility was "amazing" as dealing with the condition was an "emotional journey".
However, the Otago University research was pre-clinical, meaning it has not yet been tested on humans.
Growing evidence shows the brain - rather than the ovaries - may be the key to PCOS. Pre-clinical research from the same Otago group identified changes in brain circuitry that could underlie the disorder.
The most recent study looked at when these changes happen and whether they are hard-wired or reversible.
PCOS sufferers often produce extra androgens, a group of steroid hormones associated with males. The researchers found blocking the actions of these androgens in mice rewired their brains and returned their reproductive cycles to normal.
The study was led by University of Otago Associate Professor Rebecca Campbell, with PhD student Mauro Silva and assistant research fellow Mel Prescott.
"Our findings suggest that despite the early development of brain pathology in some forms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, normal reproductive function can potentially be restored in adult women with the disorder through modifying the wiring in the brain," Campbell said.
The research has just been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight.
"We discovered that brain changes occur prior to the onset of puberty, which is before the syndrome appears, suggesting that the brain pathology precedes disease development," Campbell said.
However, "we also discovered that despite this early 'programming' of neural circuitry, a long-term blockade of androgen actions was able to completely restore normal brain wiring and reproductive cycles".
Although the work was pre-clinical, it gave clues about which therapies could be effective for women with PCOS, Campbell said.
Her team is working with researchers in Sweden to study whether women who had been taking androgen receptor blocker drugs in the past had seen long-term reproductive changes.