Effects of oral contraceptives on the brain

A recently published study suggests oral contraceptives may have an effect on face recognition

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Oral contraceptive pills were first produced in the United States in the 60s, revolutionizing sexual health for women all over the world. Millions of women around the world use hormonal methods of contraception, but effects of the use of these medications are still being investigated.

Recently, researchers in Austria found a possible link between brain function and the use of oral contraceptives.

The two most common types of oral contraceptives to be used by women are the combined oral contraception pills, which contain the hormones estrogen and progestin, or progestin-only contraceptive pills.

In this study, 20 women between the ages of 20 and 33 participated in experiments with facial recognition performance. The subjects in the study had either never used oral contraceptives, used oral contraceptives for a duration of less than a year to five years, or were currently using oral contraceptives. The women who had used or were currently using oral contraceptives included those using both combined and progestin-only oral contraceptive pills.

In the experiment the subjects were shown 20 faces of both males and females with neutral expressions for three seconds. During this time, subjects were asked to indicate whether the face was male or female.

Half an hour following the initial slideshow of faces, another slideshow of 60 faces was shown to participants. Thirty of those 60 faces were from the previous slideshow and participants were asked to indicate if they had seen the face before or not.

Subjects also had MRI scans of their brains to determine physical differences in specific areas.

The results were that the women using anti-androgen oral contraceptives had more grey matter in the area of the brain relating to facial recognition, and were also the subjects with the highest scores in the facial recognition tests.

What the experiments did not account for were age, the androgenicity of progestin in the birth control pills, and whether or not effects of oral contraceptives were reversible or dependant on the duration of use.

Negative long-term effects of the use of oral contraceptives, such as depression and higher risk for bone density loss, have been studied before.

Positive side-effects range from the ability to control reproduction, acne treatment, and a reduced ovarian cancer risk.

Positive effects of birth control—including other forms beyond just oral contraceptives—extend to social and economic impacts. One positive relationship, among many others, has been found between access to contraception and the pursuit of post-secondary education. Such correlations relate to the ability of women and their partners to choose when to have children.

What the study in Austria aims to do is explore effects of oral contraceptives that have not been previously considered. The relationship between the use of oral contraceptives, brain structure, and related behaviours is a new area of interest for researchers.

When choosing whether or not to use oral contraceptives, it is always important make an informed decision while considering both the pros and cons, and consult your family physician for advice on what may be the best option.