Julie Kanya explains the weird and wonderful effects of progesterone

There once was a hormone, a strange kind of hormone, the kind that gets written down in history: its name was progesterone, its structure something fancy, it left a trail of happiness and misery… So maybe adapting Deep Purple songs for scientific purposes is a bit bizarre, but their emblematic description of the female psyche can also be used to flawlessly characterise this steroid compound, one of the mainstays of womanhood. It’s a strange kind of hormone because it can be synthesized by yeast and its 3D shape is nothing short of a cholesterol-based nightmare. And even though women can and will give you a miserable traumatic brain injury (TBI), the happy part is that progesterone can prevent it. Convinced? Then read on.

Independently discovered by four research groups in the 1930s, this compound’s name defines its function: ‘gestare’ is Latin for ‘to carry in the womb’, so a literal translation implies that this is the main pregnancy-promoting hormone (or you could accept the less whimsical explanation that it is derived from Progestational Steroidal Ketone). It helps sperm get to the ovum (through a process of chemically-mediated homing known as ‘chemotaxis’), although most of its roles relate to the developing foetus. Dampening down the maternal immune system to allow the acceptance of pregnancy, and preparing the uterus for implantation are just a couple more of its myriad of functions. Its systemic effects include increasing the body’s core temperature and relaxing smooth muscle and even limiting the tragic effects of TBI, as Professor Donald Stein of Emroy University starkly argues. Present at St Andrews Psychology Forum (March 19, 2012), Stein opened the series of lectures by vividly describing his groundbreaking findings: that female rats fared significantly better than their male counterparts when recovering in the aftermath of TBI. Moreover, the females that had high progesterone levels at the time of injury had an improved outcome when compared to those that exhibited elevated oestrogen. Pushing their research question further, Stein and his collaborators assessed the effects of progesterone on traumatised male rats and they discovered that the animals recover just as readily as the females, with an almost complete elimination of cerebral oedema (brain swelling) following trauma. These cutting-edge observations are currently being assessed in a phase 3 clinical trial which commenced in February 2010 and is expected to run from three to six years, enrolling approximately 1,140 people who have sustained TBI. And that is a pretty impressive achievement for a substance that can also be extracted from sweet potatoes.

All things considered, Donald Stein’s appropriately-named lecture ‘What’s so special about progesterone? After all, it’s only a female hormone!’ cast new light on innovative (and life-saving) uses for substances that have been identified for decades. And the possibilities are limitless: it could be aspirin to cure cancer, or ‘magic’ mushrooms to banish depression. All you need is that shard of fluke, while being in the right place at the right time. The rest, as Thomas Edison put it, is 99% perspiration!


Julie Kanya


Image credit – Its weird its weird