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Birth control pills can change the way women perceive fear. Here’s how |

Birth control pills may have a negative effect on fear-regulating brain regions in women, potentially increasing the risk of anxiety and stress-related disorders, according to a recent Canadian study.

The peer-reviewed Quebec study published Tuesday in Frontiers in Endocrinology found that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain region critical to the regulation of fear and emotion, was thinner in women currently taking oral contraceptives than in men and women who have never used one. pill.

“This part of the prefrontal cortex is thought to support emotion regulation, such as decreasing fear signals in the context of a safe situation. Our result could represent a mechanism by which oral contraceptives could alter emotion regulation in women,” Alexandra Brouillard, a researcher at the University of Quebec in Montreal and first author of the study, said in a press release Tuesday. .

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More than 150 million women worldwide use oral contraceptives, according to 2019 data from the United Nations. In Canada, 2015 data showed that nearly three-quarters of Canadian women use oral contraceptives at some point during their reproductive lives. Data from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada shows that use of the oral contraceptive pill has declined among 15- to 19-year-olds, from 69 percent in 2006 to 32 percent in 2016.

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Combined birth control pills are the most common type of oral contraceptive and contain forms of the hormones estrogen and progestin. These hormones are known to modulate the brain network involved in fear processes, the study authors say.

To find out the lasting effects that oral contraception may have on the fear-related region of the brain, researchers recruited women aged 23 to 35 who were currently using oral contraception, women who were previously taking it, women who were never used one. form of hormonal contraception and men.

They found that women who were currently using oral contraception had thinner ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

The researchers also highlighted another finding: the potential reversibility of the effects of birth control pill use once a person stops taking it. Indeed, the effect on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was observed exclusively in current users and not in previous users, the study said.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of the brain and is linked to greater fear extinction, less fear generalization, and resilience following exposure to trauma.

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“The prefrontal cortex is really what helps us interpret things objectively…. It’s a very important area,” Nafissa Ismail, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, told Global News.

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“This is the area that we are going to use to make important decisions, plan and manage things. This is essentially where good reasoning takes place. And here we see that specific nuclei in the prefrontal cortex can be affected by oral contraceptives.

Ismail, who has studied the impact of oral contraceptives on the brain, called the study “important” because the data is key to better understanding women’s health.

“We are just beginning to realize that there is a possible impact of oral contraceptives on the female brain,” she said.

Ismail and the study’s researchers said that while there is no conclusive evidence of the direct impact of birth control pills on the brain, more research is needed to better understand potential side effects.

Previous studies have shown that women are more likely than men to suffer from fear-related psychopathologies, including anxiety and stress-related disorders.

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For example, a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology found that anxiety and depressive disorders are twice as common in women as in men and that sex hormones are a key biological factor contributing to increased risk of depression and anxiety in women.

Because women may be more predisposed to anxiety and depression, the Quebec authors of Frontiers in Endocrinology say birth control pills could “exacerbate” this vulnerability by potentially inducing thinning of the fear-inhibiting region.

Given the scale of oral contraceptive use, it is important to better understand its current and long-term effects on brain anatomy and emotional regulation, the researchers said.

“The objective of our work is not to counter the use of oral contraceptives, but we must be aware that the pill can have an effect on the brain. Our goal is to increase scientific interest in women’s health and raise awareness about early prescribing of oral contraceptives and brain development, a very little-known topic,” Brouillard said.

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Ismail said it was already known that hormones can cause structural changes in the female brain. The change “appears to be more drastic” when oral contraceptives are taken early in development, such as during puberty.

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This is why we need to do more studies, like that of the University of Quebec in Montreal, she stressed.

“I’m not saying birth control pills are bad for our brains,” she added. “It’s just that we need more information.” Women must be properly informed before making any decision relating to their health.

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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