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Research finds the contraceptive pill impairs part of the brain

Globally, 151 million people use contraceptive pills as a form of birth control. Scientists now say that the combined pill may affect a part of the brain in a way they did not initially realise.

When it comes to caring for women’s health, many mysteries remain.

This is primarily due to a lack of medical investigation throughout history, where men were overrepresented in most drug safety trials. As a result, doctors have been left with fewer data points on how medications affect – or don’t affect – the hormones and development of the opposite sex.

Diseases and illnesses that primarily affect women have also been understudied. As a result, women are known to spend more of their lives in poor health, despite living longer on average than their male counterparts.

These issues, collectively, are known as the gender health gap.

Around the world, greater strides are being taken to understand the intricacies of women’s bodies and health, as well as how drugs typically deemed safe for everyone may impact women differently.

As part of this endeavour, scientists at the University of Quebec in Montreal have been delving deeper into the less-understood side effects of contraceptive pills, which are used by 151 million women globally.

They’ve found that women taking the combined pill may process fear and other emotions differently due to the presence of synthetic chemicals in the medication’s formula.

Unpacking the findings

Surprisingly, this is not an entirely new finding.

Previous studies have already outlined the ways in which sex hormones found in contraceptive pills influence brain function, more specifically, the brain’s ability to process fear and other emotions including anger and disgust.

A study published in 2022 found that those using contraceptives were more likely to experience negative mood disorders than those who did not. Another study conducted in 2016 linked hormonal birth control with higher anxiety, depression, and antidepressant use.

The study conducted by Canadian scientists in Montreal may have discovered the reason for this. When looking closely at the MRI scans of research participants, they found that those taking the combined pill had a thinner ventromedial prefrontal cortex than those who were not taking it.

Along with regulating fear, this area of the brain is also responsible for processing and regulating social and emotional responses, decision-making, and self-control. Scientists found this effect in women who currently took the pill, but not in women who had once taken it and had stopped.

Based on this information, they hypothesise that any impairments to this region of the brain can be reversed when stopping the medication, but more studies are needed to confirm this.


Change is coming

Though birth control packets come accompanied by large pamphlets which outline their physical side effects, changes to mental health and brain development are rarely ever addressed.

The study’s authors say that their research highlights the need to make doctors and patients aware of the mental side effects of birth control in the future.

The good news is that the gender health gap has garnered more attention in recent years, prompting experts in medical science to conduct in-depth research into women’s health.

Last July, the British government published the first-ever Women’s Health Strategy for England. This involves ramping up funding and research into women-specific health problems, with the aim of closing the gap in disease diagnosis and illness as a whole.

On top of this, incorporating an equal proportion of women in early small-scale safety studies will provide doctors balanced understanding of certain drugs’ toxicity and safe dosing levels for later stages of clinical development.

With contraceptives broadly viewed as part of women’s rights to bodily autonomy and basic healthcare, let’s hope that further research and drug trials lead to a pill that is just as effective but with less downsides.