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Study: Birth Control Pills Associated With Thinning of Brain Structures Important in Regulating Emotions

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A new study finds the use of birth control pills is associated with significantly lower cortical thickness in certain brain structures believed to be important in the response to emotional stimuli.

The study, published by the journal Human Brain Mapping, states that oral contraceptives (OCs) “contain steroid hormones that may affect the brain’s structure and function.”

Researchers Nicole Petersen, Alexandra Touroutoglou, Joseph Andreano, and Larry Cahill studied 90 women, 44 users of the combination form of oral contraceptives, and 46 non-users, and compared the cortical thickness and volume of various brain regions between the two groups. They found significant thinning in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex in the women on birth control pills.

“These regions are believed to be important for responding to rewards and evaluating internal states/incoming stimuli, respectively,” the authors write.

The researchers note that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OCs “are used by the majority of women in the United States for at least one period of time during their reproductive years and are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for pediatric use” after the onset of the first menstrual period, also known as menarche.

“Ample evidence has shown that brain development continues well past the onset of menarche…and that some features of adolescent brain development differ between male and female,” they add.

A study published in 2004 at the National Institutes of Health describes what occurs with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex:

Damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can impair the learning and reversal of stimulus-reinforcement associations, and thus the correction of behavioural responses when there are no longer appropriate because previous reinforcement contingencies change. The information which reaches the orbitofrontal cortex for these functions includes information about faces, and damage to the orbitofrontal cortex can impair face (and voice) expression identification. This evidence thus shows that the orbitofrontal cortex is involved in decoding and representing some primary reinforcers such as taste and touch; in learning and reversing associations of visual and other stimuli to these primary reinforcers; and in controlling and correcting reward-related and punishment-related behavior, and thus in emotion.

Researchers at the NIH also proposed in 2011, “[T]he posterior cingulate cortex plays a key role in altering behavior in response to unexpected change. It may be that this region, which consumes more energy than any other cortical area…must do so just to keep pace with a dynamically changing world.”

“Some women experience negative emotional side effects from taking oral contraceptive pills, although the scientific findings investigating that have been mixed,” author Petersen, a neuroscientist at UCLA, recently told The Huffington Post. “So it’s possible that this change in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex may be related to the emotional changes that some women experience when using birth control pills.”

“We need to do more studies to find out what behaviors might be changed, but this study gives us some targets to start with, and I think the first place to look is at the effect of birth control pills on regulating emotions,” she added.

According to Catholic News Agency, co-author Cahill of the University of California-Irvine is amazed at the lack of research on birth control pills, though they have been taken by many women for half a century to prevent pregnancy.

“You might think after 50 years and hundreds of millions of women taking various incarnations of the pill, there would be a large and cohesive and impressive body of evidence on it, but there’s next to nothing,” he said. “I honestly find that amazing.”


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