- Researchers found that young women who use oral contraceptive pills, or OCPs, have smaller key areas of the brain than young women who do not use birth control pills.
- Of the 50 young women studied, women who use OCPs had a smaller hypothalamus — the area of the brain that controls hormone production, mood, appetite, sex drive, heart rate, and sleep cycles.
- Primary researcher Dr. Michael Lipton said it’s too early in the stages of research to draw conclusive implications from the data, though.
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Birth control pills revolutionized the way people had sex and was even linked to women’s sexual liberation in the 1960s because of the freedom it gave people to have sex without the fear of pregnancy.
But the long-term effects of oral contraceptive pills are poorly understood, and recent scientific findings show the pills might actually be making one area of the brain, the hypothalamus, smaller.
The study, presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, included 50 young healthy women, 21 of whom were taking oral contraceptive pills, or OCPs. After comparing brain scans of all the women side-by-side, they found those who took birth control pills had a significantly smaller hypothalamus than those who did not.
The hypothalamus controls important functions of the body like hormone production, mood, appetite, sex drive, heart rate, and sleep cycles.
The findings are only preliminary
Lead researcher Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology at the Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Insider the initial study should prompt further research, not changes in individual’s contraceptive regimens.
“This initial study shows a strong association [between OCP-use and hypothalamus size] and should motivate further investigation into the effects of oral contraceptives on brain structure and their potential impact on brain function,” Lipton said.
Until more research is done, he added, the findings should be viewed only as preliminary. “The present study does not confirm any risk of harm, and it would be premature for any individual to change their choice with respect to OCP use based on these findings,” he said.
Plus, the study is very small and does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
You shouldn’t toss your birth control pills just yet
Nicole Prause, a sex researcher and founder of Liberos LLC, an independent research institute, also told Insider birth control pill users shouldn’t stop using their contraceptives just because of this study’s findings. For one, increased or decreased volume in the hypothalamus isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Some people have extremely emotional responses and others are emotionally numb,” she said, due to the hormones in their hypothalamus.
The effects of birth control pill-related changes to that brain region, then, depend the individual and are learned through experience, Prause said.
She added that although the hypothalamus is involved in certain bodily functions like sex drive and appetite, changes to the area don’t always result in functional changes a human can detect.
For these reasons, Prause suggested birth control pill users take the results lightly.