Your Brain on Birth Control

Early adulthood exposure to oral contraceptives was linked to significant structural changes in brain areas associated with memory and emotional processing.

Summary: Oral contraceptive use is associated with blunted stress response and brain activity differences during working memory tasks in women who started using birth control during puberty. Early adulthood exposure to oral contraceptives was linked to significant structural changes in brain areas associated with memory and emotional processing.

Source: University of Ottawa

They are used by 150 million women worldwide and have been around for over 60 years. Oral contraceptives – like birth control pills – are part of many women’s lives, often starting during puberty and early adolescence. Do they have any impact on brain health? A uOttawa team of researchers has been investigating the question. We sat down with senior author Nafissa Ismail, Associate Professor at the uOttawa School of Psychology and University Research Chair in Stress and Mental Health, to learn more.

Why did you decide to look into the effects of oral contraceptives on stress reactivity and brain activity?

“Millions of women have been taking oral contraceptives, but little is known about whether the synthetic hormones found in the oral contraceptives have behavioural and neurophysiological effects, especially during puberty and early adolescence, which are critical periods of brain development.

Dr. Andra Smith, Full Professor at the School of Psychology, and I collaborated to investigate whether there are differences in stress reactivity – or how someone responds to stress – and brain structure and function between women who had begun taking oral contraceptives during puberty or in adulthood and those who had never used them. This study was carried out by graduate student Rupali Sharma, supported by imaging analyst Dr. Zhuo Fang and a team of undergraduate students.”

What did you find?

“We found differences in brain structure and function between oral contraceptive users and non-users.

First, oral contraceptive use is linked to increased activation in the prefrontal cortex during working memory processing for negatively arousing stimuli, like images of a gun, car accident, etc.

In our study, we also used a social stressor and we also found that women who started using oral contraceptives during puberty or adolescence display a blunted stress response, meaning that they do not react to stressors as much as women who started taking oral contraceptives in adulthood.

This shows a pill pack
First, oral contraceptive use is linked to increased activation in the prefrontal cortex during working memory processing for negatively arousing stimuli, like images of a gun, car accident, etc. Image is in the public domain.

Women who started using oral contraceptives during puberty or adolescence also experience different brain activity during working memory processing of neutral images compared to women who started using oral contraceptives during adulthood.

In summary, oral contraceptive use is related to significant structural changes in brain regions implicated in memory and emotional processing. It also alters stress reactivity.”

Why is it important?

“Our findings offer critical insight into women’s health. It brings awareness to the potential influences of oral contraceptive use.

It could also provide a neural mechanism for why some women develop mood-related disorders following oral contraceptive use. One possibility is depression. Some women have complained of depression symptoms during oral contraceptive use. We need to be aware of it and talk to our physician if we are experiencing these symptoms.

The goal of our research is not to worry women or to discourage them from taking oral contraceptives. We just want to advise them so that they can make an informed decision about what is best for them. There is still a lot of work to be done to fully understand the impact of oral contraceptives on women’s health.”

About this neurobiology research article

Source:
University of Ottawa
Media Contacts:
Justine Boutet – University of Ottawa
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Use of the birth control pill affects stress reactivity and brain structure and function”. by Rupali Sharma, Samantha A. Smith, Nadia Boukin, Aisa Dordari, Alana Mistry, Briallen C. Taylor, Nereah Felix, Andrew Cameron, Zhuo Fang, Andra Smith, Nafissa Ismail. Hormones and Behavior.


Abstract

Use of the birth control pill affects stress reactivity and brain structure and function

Millions of women worldwide use oral contraceptives (i.e., birth control pill; OCs), often starting during puberty/adolescence; however, it is unknown how OC use during this critical period of development affects the brain, especially with regard to emotional working memory. Here, we examined stress reactivity, and brain structure and function in OC users using the Trier Social Stress Test and structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Our results show that OC use during puberty/adolescence gives rise to a blunted stress response and alters brain activation during working memory processing. OC use, in general, is also linked to increased prefrontal brain activation during working memory processing for negatively arousing stimuli. OC use is also related to significant structural changes in brain regions implicated in memory and emotional processing. Together, these findings highlight that OC use induces changes to brain structure and function and alters stress reactivity. These findings may provide a mechanistic insight for the increased vulnerability to mood-related mental illness in women after OC use.

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