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Spotlight on Women's Health Research

‌‌Interview with Jessica Mong, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Please describe your current research. 

I am primarily interested in the mechanism of sleep and arousal in women, specifically examining the effect of estrogen and, to some extent, progesterone on these vigilant states. It’s an important area of inquiry because we know that sleep disruption is different for women and men. Women are twice as likely to experience sleep disruption and this sleep disruption is coincident with mood disorders such as depression. We can, of course, treat the depression but we are not really addressing the underlying disorder. I am interested in examining the role of hormonal fluctuations in these sleep disorders. 

Historically and even to some extent today, women are being left out of the research. You can read review article after review article where authors indicate that women are excluded because the menstrual cycle is “too complicated”. As a result, all treatments for insomnia and sleep disruption are tested on men but we don’t know whether they will work effectively in the female population, particularly in terms of their hormonal effects.  

I use a rodent model in my research because laboratory rats have a neuroanatomy that is highly homologous to humans as is their neurochemistry when it comes to sleep and wake states. It serves as a useful model for dissecting neurocircuitry and neurochemistry and allowing us to look at sex differences.  

Therapeutics are of particular interest to me. We recently completed work on a grant that allowed us to look at a prodrug of estradiol. As women go through menopause, thirty to forty percent have severe sleep disruption. However, when women are prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT), these sleep disruptions subside and women are able to sleep normally. 

The problem for many women is that HRT is not a viable treatment because of family history, their personal medical history or their personal treatment preferences. For instance, HRT has been shown to have negative effects on the breast and the uterus. Unfortunately, at present there are no treatment alternatives.  

Several labs, including my own, are working on testing prodrugs of estradiol that are only active in the brain and not the periphery. Our grant that examined sleep in a rodent model had some interesting and surprising results.  

There are two basic stages of sleep – slow wave sleep and REM sleep. Our preliminary data suggest that slow wave sleep – restorative sleep - is not mediated by central action in the brain but rather is mediated by substances that go into the brain, mainly neuromodulators that are created in the periphery and then cross the blood-brain barrier. We know that peripheral somnogens induce slow wave sleep.  

In contrast, REM sleep seems to be regulated only centrally. REM sleep is the important stage of sleep for emotion and memory. It is possible that the mood and affective disorders seen in women with insomnia may be mediated by the lack of REM sleep. The alleviation of symptoms of sleep disruption by HRT suggests that estrogen could be acting in the brain. Prodrugs of estradiol may offer a therapeutic advantage to women with sleep disruption and mood disorders. These treatments act centrally in the brain, overcoming a major disadvantage of HRT.  

What do you see as the long-term impact of your research on women’s health? 

Ultimately, we may be able to provide women with a potential treatment to correct sleep disruption that results from a loss of hormones without introducing hormones into the body that will affect the periphery. We may be able to improve women’s sleep and associated mood without unwanted health consequences. 

Can you talk about your career development to date? 

I received my PhD in Neuropharmacology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore. I then spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at the Rockefeller University in New York, NY.  In 2003, I was selected as a NIH BIRCWH (Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health) Scholar by the Women's Health Research Group at the University of Maryland and joined the faculty as a member of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. In 2010, I was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor.  

I chose to come back to Maryland because of the BIRCWH program. It was an excellent opportunity to gain mentoring in women’s health research. My network of colleagues here at Maryland – many of whom have served as excellent mentors as my career has progressed -  was the most important factor in my decision to return. 

Since I have been at Maryland, the administration has made great strides in the career development support provided to faculty. There has been greater recognition of the importance of women’s health research as well the importance of nurturing women scientists. The programs put in place by the administration have, without question, contributed to the advancement of my grant writing and helped me transition into the role of a more senior scientist.  

Do you have any advice for early career researchers in women’s health? 

The most important thing for any research investigator in an academic setting is maintaining focus on your topic of research. If you maintain that focus – by publishing papers, attending meetings, presenting your research at professional meetings – you will become an authority in your field of study and solidify yourself as a nationally recognized investigator in that area.