Oral contraceptives may impair emotion recognition in Women

Oral contraceptives may impair emotion recognition in Women

by Shruthi Venkatesh February 19 2019, 4:50 pm Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 7 secs

There is a widespread use of oral contraceptives (OCs) among women, but little did they know about the effects of OC’s on emotion, cognition, and behavioural changes.  Oral contraceptives, also called birth control pills, are used for preventing unwanted pregnancy. A recent study that featured in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that women who use oral contraceptives are less able to recognize facial expressions of complex emotions.

Most oral contraceptives contain a combination of 2 types of hormones: an estrogen and a progestin. Both of these hormones are naturally found in women’s bodies. There are many different types of estrogens and progestins, and different types of pills contain different combinations, but they all work similarly. Some pills contain only progestin, sometimes called the “mini-pill.”  Besides birth control, hormonal contraceptives can help control acne, heavy periods and endometriosis - as well as reducing the risk of ovarian, uterine and colon cancers. On the downside, the pill can increase slightly the risk of breast and cervical cancer, blood clots and high blood pressure.

The study stated, “Despite the widespread use of oral contraceptives (OCs), remarkably little is known about the effects of OCs on emotion, cognition, and behaviour. However, coincidental findings suggest that OCs impair the ability to recognize others’ emotional expressions, which may have serious consequences in interpersonal contexts.” To have a clear investigation on oral contraceptives, a team of researchers asked two groups of women to participate in an emotion-recognition task. The first group consisted of 42 healthy women who were on oral contraceptives, while the second group comprised of 53 healthy women who were not on the pill.

Women may have difficulty recognising complex emotions.

“More than 100 million women worldwide use oral contraceptives, but remarkably little is known about their effects on emotion, cognition and behaviour,” says study senior author Dr Alexander Lischke of the University of Greifswald, Germany. He explained, “If oral contraceptives caused dramatic impairments in women’s emotion recognition [as hypothesized]. We would have probably noticed this in our everyday interactions with our partners. We assumed that these impairments would be very subtle, indicating that we had to test women’s emotion recognition with a task that was sensitive enough to detect such impairments. We, thus, used a very challenging emotion recognition task that required the recognition of complex emotional expressions from the eye region of faces.”

“Such emotional expressions included contempt and pride, which are more complex than the expressions of simpler emotions, such as fear or happiness” he said. After the analysis, it was found that women who took the pill were 10 percent less accurate in their emotion recognition than women who did not take the pill.

According to Lischke, “Cyclic variations of estrogen and progesterone levels are known to affect women’s emotion recognition, and influence activity and connections in associated brain regions. Since oral contraceptives work by suppressing estrogen and progesterone levels, it makes sense that oral contraceptives also affect women's emotion recognition. However, the exact mechanism underlying oral contraceptive induced changes in women's emotion recognition remains to be elucidated.” He further stresses the need for further studies that replicate and extend the findings of the present study before thinking about changing current guidelines regarding the prescription of OCPs.

“Further studies are needed to investigate whether oral contraceptive-induced impairments in emotion recognition depend on the type, duration or timing of use. These studies should also investigate whether these impairments actually alter women's ability to initiate and maintain intimate relationships. If this turns out to be true, we should provide women with more detailed information about the consequences of oral contraceptive use.”

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