Oral contraceptives may affect emotion recognition

Oral contraceptives are one of the most extensively utilized modes of contraception globally, with over 100 million women reportedly using them. However, it is no secret that, like most medications, birth control pills have side effects. The list of potential adverse effects depends on the type of contraceptive and its hormones, and it may include symptoms such as headaches, nausea, mood changes, chest pain, and flatulence. However, can we confidently assume that we have a comprehensive list of these effects? There are certain areas where the potential impact is typically disregarded.

Alexander Lischke, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Greifswald, posits that despite the popularity of oral contraceptives, there is an alarming lack of knowledge about their impact on emotions, cognition, and behavior. To address this knowledge gap, a group of German researchers led by Lischke conducted an investigation.

The study included a testing phase, in which healthy women participated. These women were asked a series of questions about their age, education, state of mind, ability to empathize, the current phase of their menstrual cycle, and the type of contraception they use. Of the women surveyed, 42 of them used birth control pills, while the remaining 53 did not.

Next, the participants were subjected to an emotion recognition test known as the “reading thoughts by the eyes” test. They were required to examine black-and-white images of human faces (more specifically, only the eyes) and determine the emotions being experienced by the individuals depicted in them.

With respect to simple emotions like fear or happiness, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups – those who took oral contraceptives and those who did not. This is unsurprising because, as Alexander Lischke explains, “if oral contraceptives caused dramatic disturbances in the recognition of emotions, we would probably notice this in our daily interactions.” However, the situation was different with more intricate emotions like contempt and pride, which were more difficult to identify for women taking birth control pills.

The scientists concluded that women who took pills were about 10 percent less accurate in recognizing complex emotions than those who did not use oral contraceptives. The results obtained were not influenced by the woman’s menstrual cycle phase or the emotional valence of the faces in the photos.

So, what could be the mechanism behind this effect? We know that fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels associated with the menstrual cycle impact the activity of brain regions responsible for emotional states. Hormonal contraceptives lower the levels of estrogen and progesterone, which could influence women’s ability to recognize complex emotions. However, the mechanism requires further clarification. First and foremost, it is necessary to confirm the results of this study on a larger sample as 95 women tested is relatively small. Nevertheless, even now, there is sufficient reason to believe that the list of side effects of oral contraceptives can be expanded.

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