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How Hormonal Birth Control May Affect the Teenage Brain

Summary: Hormonal contraception disrupts signal transmission between cells in the prefrontal cortex of adolescents. Hormonal birth control also raises levels of stress hormones in the brain.

Source: ohio state

Reproductive health experts consider hormonal contraceptives good choices for teenage girls because they are safe and highly effective in preventing pregnancy, but one aspect of their effect on teenage girls’ bodies remains a mystery: whether they change the brain by development and how.

New research in young rats links synthetic hormones found in birth control pills, patches and injections to disordered signal transmission between cells in the prefrontal cortex, an area of ​​the brain that continues to develop throughout life. adolescence.

Compared to control rats, animals given hormonal contraceptives also produced higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone, which is similar to cortisol in humans.

The Ohio State University scientists launched this line of study in the prefrontal cortex, an area where mood is regulated, as some previous research has linked early use of hormonal contraceptives to a risk of depression at the time. adulthood.

But what’s most important, researchers say, is learning how birth control affects the developing brain so that individuals can weigh the risks and benefits of their reproductive health choices.

“Birth control has had a major positive impact on women’s health and independence – so it’s not that we’re suggesting teenage girls stay off hormonal contraceptives,” said the lead author. study, Benedetta Leuner, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State.

“What we need is to be informed about what synthetic hormones are doing in the brain so that we can make informed decisions – and if there are any risks, this is something that needs to be monitored. . Next, if you decide to use a hormonal contraceptive, you would pay more attention to the warning signs if you were aware of possible mood-related side effects.

The research poster was presented today (Tuesday, November 15, 2022) at Neuroscience 2022, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

An estimated 2 in 5 teenage girls in the United States have sex between the ages of 15 and 19, and the vast majority use birth control, especially condoms. Of those who use birth control, nearly 5% use hormonal contraceptives, also known as long-acting reversible contraceptives. These products are also prescribed to treat acne and heavy periods.

Despite their popularity, “not much is known about how hormonal birth control influences adolescent brains and behavior,” said co-author Kathryn Lenz, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State. “Adolescence is a critically understudied time of dramatic brain changes and dramatic hormonal shifts that we really don’t understand.”

The researchers gave a combination of synthetic estrogen and progesterone commonly found in hormonal contraceptives to female rats for three weeks beginning about a month after birth, an age equivalent to early adolescence in rats. man.

Researchers have confirmed that the drugs disrupt the reproductive cycle of animals – these contraceptive products work by preventing the ovaries from producing hormones at the levels needed to generate eggs and by making the uterine lining inhospitable for an egg to implant .

Blood samples showed that the treated rats produced more corticosterone than the untreated animals, a sign that they were stressed. And after being subjected to an experimental stressor and recovering from it, the corticosterone level of the treated rats remained elevated. Their adrenal glands were also larger, suggesting that their production of stress hormones was consistently higher than that of control animals.

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Researchers have confirmed that the drugs disrupt the reproductive cycle of animals – these contraceptive products work by preventing the ovaries from producing hormones at the levels needed to generate eggs and by making the uterine lining inhospitable for an egg to implant . Image is in public domain

An analysis of gene activation markers in the animals’ prefrontal cortex showed a decrease in excitatory synapses in this brain region of treated rats compared to controls, but no change in inhibitory synapses – a phenomenon that could create an imbalance normal signaling patterns and result in behavior modification. The loss of only excitatory synapses in the prefrontal cortex has been linked to exposure to chronic stress and depression in previous research.

“What this means for the operation of particular circuits, we do not yet know. But it gives us an idea of ​​where to go in terms of functional outcomes,” Lenz said.

Researchers are moving forward with additional studies targeting hormonal contraceptive effects on the brain between puberty and late adolescence — a tricky time to study the developing brain because it undergoes constant change, Leuner said. The reasons behind the drug effects are also an open question.

“These are synthetic hormones, so do they affect the brain because of their synthetic properties, or do they affect the brain because they block naturally produced hormones?” she says. “That’s a difficult question to answer, but an important one.”

First author Rachel Gilfarb, a graduate student in Leuner’s lab, presented the poster. Other Ohio State co-authors include Meredith Stewart, Abhishek Rajesh, Sanjana Ranade, and Courtney Dye.

About This Neurodevelopment and Birth Control Research News

Author: Emily Caldwell
Source: ohio state
Contact: Emily Caldwell – Ohio State
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: The results were presented at Neuroscience 2022

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