Contraceptive pills have been available for almost 60 years and approximately 100 million women take them. But despite its ubiquity, some researchers still think that certain aspects of contraceptives deserve further investigation. Namely: how the pill could affect the brain.
"We know a lot about the physical side effects [of birth control pills], but very little about psychological side effects, "said Alexander Lischke, a psychology researcher at the University of Greifswald in Germany.
Then, Lischke and his lab decided to investigate how taking the pill could change someone's ability to process emotion. Their research, published today (Feb. 11) in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, found that women who took the pill erroneously labeled the emotion on someone's face 10 percent more often than participants who did not take the pill. Although few researchers have observed this particular influence of the pill, and others think that this research is not even worthwhile, the results have caused Lischke's laboratory to plan more research. [10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Brain]
Even so, Lischke was clear that the findings do not prove cause and effect; In other words, the study does not prove that birth control hinders a woman's ability to recognize the emotions of others and that people should not worry about that. The effects of your own birth control. Rather, he told Live Science that he expects additional investigations to be made. "If it turns out to be true, then it's worth studying," he said.
Hormones and the brain.
Lischke and his team chose this research question because birth control hormones reach regions of the brain that help regulate emotions. While these two chemicals, estrogen and progesterone, rise and fall regularly in women who do not take the pill, oral contraceptives provide a steady supply of these hormones and reduce some of that fluctuation.
To see if the study's hormone flow changed emotional processing skills, the research group conducted multiple-choice tests on participants: 42 women who took the pill and 53 who did not, on what emotion was expressed in 36 blank images and black of a person's eyes. The right answers ranged from emotions that were easier to identify, such as hostility, to darker options, such as worry. Lischke and his team found that all the participants did the same in the easiest questions. But for the most difficult expressions to characterize, women who did not take the pill obtained a 65% correction, while those who took the pill obtained a 55% correction.
Lischke said it makes sense how, if the pill manipulates emotional recognition skills, the most challenging emotions would be the ones that separate the skills. But in reality, obvious emotions are a rarity. "We rarely meet people who show a prototypical emotional expression," Lischke told Live Science, so the dark snapshots are closer to what people find.
But this configuration, a computer that shows lots of faces in black and white, still does not look like real life, said Lischke, and it is possible that this discrepancy they found in this configuration is so small, it does not matter, let alone that happen, outside the lab.
So, why bother?
Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University, who was not involved in the research, said he was not sure the research question was worth pursuing. It's true that about 10 percent of people with hormonal contraceptives face mood swings, so some people stop taking the pill and put themselves at risk for unwanted pregnancies, Schaffir told Live Science. And while it's worth investigating who might be susceptible to those particular side effects related to mood, Schaffir said he does not think it's so important to investigate how the pill can affect emotional processing.
What's more, because there is a lot of research on contraceptive pills, people can often detect small, casual results that are probably not affecting the lives of users, Schaffir said.
In addition to the premise of the study, Schaffir said the researchers also drew conclusions about what is causing the different scores. Just because women in birth control did not do so well does not mean they got lower grades why Birth control, he said. There are other factors that were not considered, such as why the participants were in birth control in the first place, and apparently none were asked. "The conclusions drawn from this are excessive," said Schaffir.
Lischke also said he wants to make sure that the difference in scores is due solely to birth control, so future studies are needed. For example, you would like to make sure that emotion identification skills are not influenced by natural hormone levels. On this occasion, the researchers simply assumed that participants without pills had high or low hormone levels from a questionnaire. But next time, the lab will take blood samples.
Originally published in Living science.