Small‑Scale Study Finds Women Taking Oral Birth Control Have Smaller Hypothalami
A new study of 50 women may help shed light on the poorly understood relationship between oral birth control and depression, finding women who take the pill have smaller hypothalami than women who do not take oral contraceptives.
The hypothalamus is the region of the brain that produces hormones and helps regulate basic, involuntary functions like body temperature, mood, appetite, sex drive, sleep cycles, and heart rate. Previous research has suggested the volume of the hypothalamus may differ in depression patients. Previous research has also suggested hormonal birth control use might elevate the risk of depression in young women and other, already at-risk populations.
Oral hormonal birth control is the most-used method of birth control other than the condom. It is often prescribed as a medication to help manage a host of conditions including irregular menstruation, menstrual pain, acne, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
The current researchers are not offering any conclusions, nor do they say their findings validate the previous research. Instead, they say the findings simply open up a new avenue of research.
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“We found a dramatic difference in the size of the brain structures between women who were taking oral contraceptives and those who were not,” Dr. Michael L. Lipton, MD, Ph.D., FACR, said in a statement. Dr. Lipton is an author of the study, presented at the recent annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America, and a professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and medical director of MRI Services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “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.”
It’s a first in large part because methods for measuring the hypothalamus via MRI have previously not been confirmed; this study is the first to validate such a method, paving the way to repeat the research and confirm or debunk its findings.
Dr. Lipton’s study involved 50 healthy women, of whom 21 were actively taking hormonal oral birth control; the exact composition of said birth control has not been reported and it is unclear if all 21 women were using the same type of oral contraceptive. Oral birth control exists in a variety of types, some of which have been more closely linked than others to depressive symptoms.