21/03/2017 4:19 PM AEDT | Updated 21/03/2017 9:51 PM AEDT

Polycystic Ovaries Syndrome Might Start In The Brain, Not Just The Ovaries

New research is understanding what actually causes the condition.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex hormonal disorder and you probably know a woman who has it.

Up to one in five women worldwide are diagnosed with the condition, juggling treatments that target its ranging symptoms -- including irregular periods, reduced fertility and male patterns of body and facial hair -- but not its cause.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales have found that a high level of a steroid hormone, called androgens, plays an unexpected role in the development of PCOS.

If we understand what underlies the condition, then we can start developing treatments targeting the cause of it, rather than the symptoms.

Dr Kirsty Walters

"Androgens are a group of hormones normally associated with men -- testosterone being one of them -- that are produced in the ovary and the adrenal gland. We have found that an imbalance of what we classically think of as a male hormone is actually a key factor in something that causes a syndrome in women," lead study author from the School of Women's and Children's Health, Dr Kirsty Walters, told The Huffington Post Australia.

With a background in unpacking what governs women's fertility, Walters' interest lies in hormonal regulation.

"PCOS is a condition that can affect a whole range of organs and the main one we think of is the ovary. What we are looking at now is whether this excess level of androgens in circulation is having an effect elsewhere in the body."

Portra via Getty Images
PCOS is the most common hormonal in pre-menopausal women.

The study, published in the PNAS on Tuesday, used a hyper-androgenised PCOS mouse model to uncover the sites of androgen action that initiate the disorder.

"We have selectively silenced the androgen action in different parts of the body and that's how we know the brain is playing an important role. When we silence the action in the brain, the animal is protected against the development of these PCOS traits," Walters said.

The results give researchers new direction for developing targeted treatments.

We need to start thinking about PCOS differently.Dr Kirsty Walters

"Women who are diagnosed with PCOS have this really difficult situation where they go to the doctor with a range of symptoms. The problem is, in light of there being no cure, she can only be treated for those individual symptoms," Walters said.

"With this research, we're now understanding what actually underlies PCOS. If we understand that, then we can start developing treatments targeting the cause of it, rather than the symptoms."

Targeting 'androgen excess' may involve reframing the use of anti-androgen drugs that are not widely used.

"The next step will be looking into great detail at the specific pathways and mechanisms of the brain that are being affected," Walters said.

"The real take home here for patients is that we are looking towards a future where we can actually start to treat the cause of PCOS."