Cognitive Health Nootropics

Contraceptives: a Nootropic for Women?

As you might already know, the nervous system uses neurotransmitters as its chemical signals; the endocrine system, hormones. In this way, the pituitary gland secretes factors into the blood that operate on the endocrine glands to either raise or drop hormone production, establishing a major communication system between the body and the brain. This process is known as a feedback loop, and it involves chemical transmission from the brain to the pituitary to an endocrine gland, and back to the brain. When this process is comprehended, it does not become a surprise that hormonal medication may rapidly change the structure and function of our brains.

Birth control pills are on the market now for more than five decades, used by more than one hundred million of women who report high levels of contentment. However, the repercussions of the synthetic steroids contained in the pill on brain and cognition have scarcely been studied. Thus, 2014 has been a year in which neuroscientists just found the topic particularly appealing.[1] Here we summarize for you the latest findings, which might be of special interest among female nootropic users.

According to a new UC Irvine research[2], women who take contraceptives may experience memory changes. These changes are not from a quantitative nature, but rather a qualitative one: women who are taking the pill were found to be more effective at recalling the gist of an emotional event, while the women who were not using it performed better at retaining details. This cognitive change makes perfect sense, argues researcher Nielsen, since contraceptives suppress sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone to prevent pregnancy, and these hormones were previously linked to women’s strong “left brain”.

Thus, birth control medication is nowadays presumed of being “masculinizing” brain patterns activation. In this trial[3], women’s number processing was analyzed and male-like brain activation patterns were recognized in women who were taking the pill, and a small but significant enhancement in processing social cues[4]. Nevertheless, the most consistent finding was the sustained improvement of verbal memory with birth control use, and a statistically significant enhancement in visuospatial ability as well. Interestingly, these cognitive changes seem to present a long-term nature, which results predict better cognitive outcomes later in life, even years after discontinued use. In this line of thought, this study[5] found that contraceptive ever users performed significantly better than never users in the domain of visuospatial ability, and speed & flexibility, with duration-dependent increases in performance, especially in ever users with ≥ 15 years of use.

Furthermore, an apparent effect of oral contraceptives on emotion recognition was observed, strengthening the theory of brain masculinization. While it is well known in neuropsychology that females tend to score higher at recognizing faces and emotions; in this clinical trial[6], users of oral contraceptives detected significantly fewer facial expressions of sadness, anger and disgust than non-users.

A few years back, a study discovered that users of oral contraceptives had larger volumes of grey matter[7] in certain areas of the brain. Thus, these past neuroatomical findings seem to correlate pretty well with the neurobehavioral changes recognized nowadays in the cited studies.

In conclusion,  the mechanisms in which the brain responds to hormones point out that the organ is capable of responding effectively, in a flexible manner, to environmental signals from the endocrine system. This creates a strong demand for additional studies about how the pill affects indirectly & directly the nervous system from a molecular to a behavioural level.

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