February 11, 2019
Despite being used for nearly 60 years, researchers have some questions about certain aspects of contraceptive birth control pills. Namely, how they affect the brain.
Most women know the not-so pleasant known side effects of birth control, including potential weight gain, anxiety, mood swings and high blood pressure, but a new study out of the University of Greifswald in Germany found something else women might need to worry about: birth control pills could be blurring your emotional recognition.
The research, published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, found women on the pill mislabeled the emotion on someone's face 10 percent more often than participants who weren't on the pill. While few researchers have looked at this particular influence of the pill, this German research team has reason to continue their investigation, Live Science reports.
Researchers do note that their findings don't prove cause and effect — rather, the study doesn't necessarily prove that birth control messes with a woman's ability to recognize others' emotions — and that people shouldn't be concerned about the effects of their own birth control. They believe if, with additional, research this turns out to be true, then it’s certainly worth studying further.
In the new study, researchers looked at two similar groups of healthy women between the ages 18 and 35, some who used oral contraceptives and some who did not. At first, the researchers didn't find any dramatic psychological differences between the two groups of women.
MindBodyGreen reports the team found both groups to be equally good at recognizing easy, black-and-white facial expressions on a computer during an emotional recognition test. But the women who took oral contraceptives were 10 percent worse on average than non-users at interpreting emotions when the facial expressions became more complex.
Women using oral contraceptives were more likely to misinterpret social cues relating to recognizing more nuanced, complicated emotions. This group had an especially difficult time reading complex negative facial expressions, according to the study.
Senior author Dr. Alexander Lischke of the University of Greifswald, Germany explains in a press release why this misunderstanding of emotions may be occurring in contraceptive pill users:
"Cyclic variations of estrogen and progesterone levels are known to affect women's emotion recognition, and influence activity and connections in associated brain regions," he said. "Since oral contraceptives work by suppressing estrogen and progesterone levels, it makes sense that oral contraceptives also affect women's emotion recognition However, the exact mechanism underlying oral contraceptive induced changes in women's emotion recognition remains to be elucidated."
The researchers believe more examination is needed before users need to be concerned about using of birth control pills. Though researchers do believe that future studies should examine if contraceptives alter women's ability to initiate and maintain intimate relationships.
“If this turns out to be true, we should provide women with more detailed information about the consequences of oral contraceptive use,” Lischke explains.