Birth Control and the Brain

Preliminary research delivered at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America indicates that women taking oral contraceptives “had significantly smaller hypothalamus volume, compared to women not taking the pill.” The abstract to the paper—which is forthcoming—describes “limited evidence on the structural and functional effects of hormonal contraceptives on the brain.” This is particularly true for the impact of hormonal contraception on the hypothalamus, the structure located at the base of the brain, and responsible for producing hormones and helping to “regulate essential bodily functions including body temperature, mood, appetite, sex drive, sleep cycles and heart rate.”  To conduct their study, the researchers took brain MRIs of a group of 50 healthy young women—21 were taking oral contraceptive pills (OCPs), and 29 were not. They then validated  various methods for assessing the volume of the hypothalamus. They found that “[t]otal hypothalamic volume in participants taking OCPs was smaller than those not taking.” In the press release issued on the research, lead researcher Dr. Michael L. Lipton described this difference as “dramatic.” He adds, “This initial study shows a strong association and should motivate further investigation into the effect of oral contraceptives on brain structure and their potential impact on brain function.” Interestingly, the study also found “a significant association of hypothalamic volume with greater anger (p=0.02) as well as a strong correlation with depression (p=0.09).” In this study, differences in cognitive results did not manifest. If these findings bear out in more thorough analyses, they may partly explain the longstanding link between incidence of depression and hormonal contraceptive use in women. If nothing else, they demonstrate that OCPs are powerful drugs that have a more far-reaching effect than has hitherto been understood. (Radiological S
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