In a new study, researchers found that women taking oral contraceptives, commonly known as birth control pills, had significantly smaller hypothalamus volume, compared to women not taking the pill.
The research was conducted by a team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and elsewhere.
Located at the base of the brain above the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus produces hormones and helps regulate essential bodily functions including body temperature, mood, appetite, sex drive, sleep cycles, and heart rate.
Structural effects of sex hormones, including oral contraceptive pills, on the human hypothalamus, have never been reported.
This may be in part because validated methods to quantitatively analyze MRI exams of the hypothalamus have not been available.
Oral contraceptives are among the most popular forms of birth control and are also used to treat a host of conditions, including irregular menstruation, cramps, acne, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, from 2015 to 2017 approximately 47 million women aged 15-49 in the U.S. reported the current use of contraceptives. Of those, 12.6% used the pill.
In the study, the team validated methods for assessing the volume of the hypothalamus and confirm, for the first time, that current oral contraceptive pill usage is linked to smaller hypothalamic volume.
They examined a group of 50 healthy women, including 21 women who were taking oral contraceptives.
All 50 women underwent brain MRI, and a validated approach was used to measure hypothalamic volume.
The team found a dramatic difference in the size of the brain structures between women who were taking oral contraceptives and those who were not.
Future work needs to examine the effects of oral contraceptives on brain structure and their potential impact on brain function.
Other findings from the study were that smaller hypothalamic volume was also linked to greater anger and showed a strong correlation with depressive symptoms.
One author of the study is Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., FACR, a professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
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