Contraceptives: a Nootropic for Women?

October 5, 2015

Besides the nervous system, the endocrine system is a major communication system between the body and the brain. While the nervous system uses neurotransmitters as its chemical signals, the endocrine system uses hormones. Thus, the pituitary gland secretes factors into the blood that act on the endocrine glands to either increase or decrease hormone production. This process is known as a feedback loop, and it entails communication from the brain to the pituitary to an endocrine gland and back to the brain. Knowing this beforehand, it should not be a surprise that hormonal medication may change how our brains look -its structure- and hence behave -its performance-.

Hormonal contraceptives are on the market for more than 50 years with a widespread use of 100 million women worldwide with high reported levels of satisfaction. Nevertheless, the effects of the synthetic steroids contained in the pill on brain and cognition have barely been studied. Thus, last year -2014- use of contraceptives & changes in brain structure was a fashionable topic among neuroscientists. Here we present you the last findings, which might be of special interest among female nootropic users.

According to a new UC Irvine research, women who use contraceptives experience memory changes. Not a deficit, not an improvement, but a qualitative change: women who are taking the pill were found to remember better the gist of an emotional event, while the women who are not using it are better at retaining details. This cognitive change makes sense, explains researcher Nielsen, since contraceptives suppress sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone to prevent pregnancy, and this hormones were previously killed to women’s strong “left brain”.

Thus, hormonal contraceptives are nowadays suspected of being masculinizing brain patterns activation. In this study, women’s number processing was examined and male-like brain activation patters were found when taking the pill, and a relative enhancement in processing social cues. However, the most consistent finding is improved verbal memory with OC use, and a small but significant enhancement in visuospatial ability. Interestingly, these cognitive changes seem to have a long-term nature, predicting better cognitive outcomes later in life, even years after discontinued use. In this way, this study 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.

On the other hand, a possible 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 perform significantly better at recognizing faces and emotions; in this clinical trial, 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 (brain tissue consisting of nerve cell bodies) in certain areas of the brain. These past findings seem to correlate pretty well with the neurobehavioral changes observed today in the described studies.

In conclusion, the way the brain responds to hormones indicates that the brain is very malleable and capable of responding to environmental signals, creating a strong demand for additional studies in how the pill affects the nervous system from the molecular to the behavioral level.