According to Science Daily, a new study in young rats linked synthetic hormones found in birth control pills, patches, and injections to poor signal transmission between cells in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that grows until puberty.
Experts in reproductive health recommend hormonal contraceptives because they are both safe and effective in preventing conception. Still, it is unknown whether these pills affect a teen’s still-developing brain.
Corticosterone levels, the rat counterpart of the stress hormone cortisol, also differed significantly between rats given hormonal contraceptives and those given a placebo. Since a previous study has linked early teenage usage of hormonal contraceptives to an increased risk of depression later in life, researchers at Ohio State University have begun investigating the prefrontal cortex, which is essential in mood regulation.
Before making any reproductive health decisions, the researchers stressed the need to understand how birth control impacts a child’s growing brain. Benedetta Leuner, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State, who led the study, stressed that they were not recommending that young people not use hormonal contraception because of its significant effects on women’s health and independence.
“Understanding the influence of synthetic hormones on the brain is crucial for making smart decisions, and any possible hazards should be carefully monitored.” Over half of all American adolescent girls between 15 and 19 use birth control. Only around 5% of women who use birth control use hormonal contraceptives (also known as long-acting reversible contraceptives). These products are also vital if you have acne or heavy menstruation.
Despite its widespread use, “not much is known about how hormonal birth control affects the teen brain and behavior,” according to Ohio State associate professor of psychology and co-author Kathryn Lenz. Adolescence is an important area for future research since we don’t know enough about the enormous brain and body changes that occur throughout this period.
Researchers fed female rats a mixture of synthetic estrogen and progesterone, commonly seen in hormonal contraceptives, for three weeks beginning around one month after birth, an age corresponding to early adolescence in humans.
According to the researchers, these birth control pills disrupt reproductive cycles by stopping ovaries from generating hormones at levels required to create eggs and making the uterine lining hostile for an egg to implant.
Blood tests corroborated the treated animals’ heightened stress levels compared to the control rats by detecting elevated corticosterone levels. Corticosterone levels in the treated rats remained high even after they were subjected to and overcame an artificial stressor. Because of the extra stress, their adrenal glands became more extensive than control animals.
When treated rats were compared to controls, gene activation markers in the prefrontal cortex indicated a drop in excitatory synapses but no change in inhibitory synapses, which might disrupt normal signaling pathways and lead to aberrant behavior. Only excitatory synapses have been associated with prefrontal brain function decrease in earlier studies relating to chronic stress and depression.
“How much this will interfere with the functioning of certain circuits is currently unknown,” Lenz says, “but it puts us in the right direction in terms of future research paths that may lead to more practical consequences.
“More study into how hormonal contraceptives impact the growing brain between puberty and late adolescence, according to Leuner, is already underway. Learning about the brain at the time is challenging since it is constantly changing. The specific functions of the medications in producing the intended results are uncertain.