CHICAGO — It’s estimated that nearly six million women used a form of oral contraception between 2015-2017 in the United States. But there may be bad news for birth control users. A disconcerting new study, that only recently became possible due to advancements in MRI technology, finds that birth control pills may actually impact the size or even shrink a portion of women’s brains.
According to the study, women who take birth control pills have significantly smaller hypothalamus volume. The hypothalamus is among the most important areas of the brain, and has a hand in nearly everything one does on a day-to-day basis. This includes appetite, sex drive, overall mood, body temperature, sleep patterns, and heart rate. Situated at the base of the brain above the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus also produces essential hormones.
According to the research team, this is the first time the structural effects of sex hormones and birth control pills on the hypothalamus have been investigated. Mostly due to a lack of valid methods to quantitatively analyze MRI exams, that is, up until now.
“There is a lack of research on the effects of oral contraceptives on this small but essential part of the living human brain,” says Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., FACR, 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, in a release. “We validated methods for assessing the volume of the hypothalamus and confirm, for the first time, that current oral contraceptive pill usage is associated with smaller hypothalamic volume.”
Besides their main use as a form of birth control, oral contraceptives are also used by many women to help with irregular periods, acne, endometriosis, cramps, and polycystic ovary syndrome.
For the research, the study’s authors gathered 50 healthy women. Within that group, 21 were currently taking a birth control pill. Each woman underwent an MRI, and then a validated approach was used to calculate individual hypothalamic volumes.
“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. Lipton adds. “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.”
To be clear, Dr. Lipton and his team characterized their study as “preliminary,” and stress the need for further research into the matter. That being said, it was also noted that smaller hypothalamic volume was found to be associated with increased feelings of anger, and exhibited a strong correlation with depression.
It’s important to mention, though, that the study found no evidence of a significant correlation between hypothalamic volume and cognitive performance.
The study is set to be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago.