Birth control study links the pill to brain change and mood issues

The development of oral contraceptives, more commonly called birth control pills, was an incredible milestone for society, revolutionizing women's healthcare and changing lives. However, these same contraceptives are known to come with a number of potential downsides, not the least of which is the possibility of mood and hormone disruption. A new study sheds light on those issues, revealing that women who take the pill may experience significant shrinkage in a key brain region.

A new study presented today at a meeting held by the Radiological Society of North America reveals that oral contraceptives have been linked to a 'significantly smaller' volume in a brain region called the hypothalamus, which works to regulate important functions in the body.

In addition to producing hormones, the hypothalamus works to manage one's sex drive, mood, body temperature, heart rate, appetite, and sleep cycles, among other things. Though tiny in size, the researchers point out that the hypothalamus is an essential part of the brain.

Using validated methods, researchers studied the MRI brain scans of 50 healthy women, 21 of whom were taking the birth control pill. According to Dr. Michael Lipton, one of the researchers behind the project:

We found a dramatic difference in the size of the brain structures between women who were taking oral contraceptives and those who were not. This initial study shows a strong association and should motivate further investigation into the effects of oral contraceptives on brain structure and their potential impact on brain function.

Preliminary findings indicate that lower volume in the hypothalamus is linked with experiencing depression and greater levels of anger. The same study didn't find any evidence of the shrinkage having an impact on cognitive performance, however.