Birth Control Pills Could Be Shrinking the Hypothalamus in Women

A new study shows that women who take an oral contraceptive have a significant difference from those who do not take the pill: their hypothalamus is much smaller.

Does the birth control pill have an adverse effect on the brains of women taking it?

This is suggested by a study conducted by the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein University of Medicine in New York and presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). According to its authors, women who take the pill have a much smaller hypothalamus than those who do not take an oral contraceptive.

The hypothalamus, a key area of the brain

Located at the base of the brain, just above the brainstem, the hypothalamus produces hypothalamic neurohormones which, in turn, stimulate or inhibit the secretion of hormones from the pituitary gland. It, therefore, participates in the regulation of several essential body functions, such as thermoregulation, libido, mood, appetite, circadian rhythm, and heart rate.

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To date, no study has investigated the effects of birth control pills on sex hormones secreted by the hypothalamus. There is a lack of research on the effects of oral contraceptives on this small but essential part of the living human brain according to Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology at Gruss Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center and medical director of MR services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Furthermore, there are already validated methods to assess hypothalamus volume which in this case confirmed for the first time that the current use of oral contraceptive pills is associated with lower hypothalamus volume.

Risk of depression

To reach this conclusion, the researchers recruited a group of 50 healthy women, 21 of whom were taking the pill. All participants did an MRI of the brain to measure the volume of the hypothalamus.

According to Michael Lipton, a significant difference in the size of brain structures between women taking oral contraceptives and those not taking oral contraceptives was found. This first study shows a strong association and should motivate further research on the effects of oral contraceptives on brain structures and their potential impact on brain function.

Other results that the researchers consider preliminary also show that a smaller volume of the hypothalamus is generally associated with greater anger and symptoms of depression. However, the study did not find a significant correlation between hypothalamic volume and cognitive performance.

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References

https://press.rsna.org/timssnet/media/pressreleases/14_pr_target.cfm?ID=2136

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