Can Oral Contraceptives Impact Women's Brain And Induce Anxiety?

A Quebec study in Frontiers in Endocrinology explores how oral contraceptives may thin the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, impacting women's emotional well-being. Delve into key findings, implications, and the broader context of contraceptive use.

Oshi Saxena
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A team of Canadian researchers has delved into the intricate relationship between oral contraceptives (OCs) and the female brain's fear-processing network. Published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, the study scrutinizes the current and long-term consequences of OC use, shedding light on the impact of both naturally occurring and synthetic sex hormones on the neural circuitry associated with fear. This revelation gains significance considering that over 150 million women globally use OCs, with the most prevalent being combined OCs (COCs), which incorporate synthetic hormones.


The study's lead researcher, Alexandra Brouillard of Universite du Quebec in Montreal, highlights a compelling finding: women currently using COCs exhibit a thinner ventromedial prefrontal cortex compared to men. This specific brain region plays a pivotal role in emotion regulation, specifically in dampening fear signals within safe contexts. Brouillard suggests that this thinning may represent a mechanism through which COCs could potentially impair emotion regulation in women.

Long-term Effects

The study points out that combination birth control pills, the most prevalent type of oral contraceptives, contain estrogen and progesterone, hormones known to modulate the brain network involved in fear processes. This sheds light on a potential biological link between hormonal composition and the observed impact on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Unlike the commonly discussed physical side effects of OCs, such as the abolition of the menstrual cycle and prevention of ovulation, the study delves into the less explored terrain of sex hormones' impact on ongoing brain development in early adulthood. This is a critical aspect often overlooked in discussions surrounding OC use.

Implications For Women's Health

Prevalence of Oral Contraceptive Use


With more than 150 million women worldwide and approximately three-quarters of Canadian women using oral contraceptives at some point in their reproductive lives, the implications of this study are far-reaching. The societal significance of oral contraceptive use necessitates a deeper understanding of its effects on women's health, particularly concerning brain anatomy and emotional regulation.

Reversibility and Further Research

A noteworthy finding of the study is the potential reversibility of the impacts on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex once individuals cease using oral contraceptives. This emphasizes the importance of continuous research to unravel the intricacies of oral contraceptive effects on the female brain, addressing questions of reversibility, long-term consequences, and potential correlations with mental health.

Women's Predisposition to Fear-Related Psychopathologies

The study aligns with past research indicating that women are more susceptible to fear-related psychopathologies, such as anxiety and stress-related disorders. Understanding this vulnerability is crucial in assessing how oral contraceptives may exacerbate these conditions, potentially inducing thinning of the fear-inhibiting region.

Future Directions and Considerations


Acknowledging the complexity of women's brain development and its interaction with COC use, the researchers emphasize the need for further investigation. Ongoing studies, led by Brouillard and her team, aim to explore factors such as the age of onset and duration of COC use, potentially unravelling more about the lasting effects of COCs, particularly during adolescence—a sensitive period in brain development.

Contraceptive Awareness and Usage in India

Shifting focus to India, according to the 2019–21 India National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), more than 99 percent of currently married women and men aged between 15 and 49 years are knowledgeable about at least one method of contraception.

The NFHS-5 reveals that a majority of the population is aware of emergency contraception, with 52 percent of currently married women and men acknowledging its existence. However, a concerning trend persists, as more than one-third of men perceive contraception as solely a woman's responsibility. Additionally, 20 percent of men harbour the misconception that women using contraceptives may engage in promiscuous behaviour.

Despite the availability of various contraceptive methods, female sterilization remains the most popular choice among currently married women aged 15–49, with 38 percent opting for this method. Male condoms and pills follow, with 10 percent and 5 percent usage, respectively. 

The report sheds light on prevailing misconceptions among men, with more than one-third viewing contraception as exclusively "women's business." This mindset, coupled with the belief that contraception may lead to promiscuity, underscores the need for targeted awareness campaigns to dispel myths and foster shared responsibility. 


Insights from an Expert

In an exclusive interview with Dr. Sudehsna Ray, a distinguished expert in the field, SheThePeople explored the intricate relationship between oral contraceptives (OCPills) and women's mental health. Dr Ray, shedding light on the psychological impacts of OCPills, highlighted the dual nature of their popularity—offering predictability in cycles and temporary fertility suppression while not being devoid of side effects.

She emphasized, "While OCPills deliver a constant hormone dose, they are not without consequences. Beyond physical effects, such as breakthrough bleeding and bloating, they can induce psychological challenges like anxiety, depression, and emotional lability."

Dr Ray's insights extended to the study's focus on the thinning of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPMC), a key regulator of emotional responses and fear control. She explained, "Continuous use of OCPills can lead to temporary VPMC thinning, causing fear, anxiety, and emotional instability. However, it's crucial to note that this effect is dynamic, with size restoration over time through coping mechanisms." Dr Ray acknowledged the study's limitations, cautioning that it might not match the robustness of previous safety profiles established over decades.

Dr Ray also advocated for open dialogue, stating, "Rather than instilling fear, this study should prompt users to discuss, fostering a better understanding and informed decision-making based on relative risks and benefits."

While the study does not establish a causal relationship between COC use and brain morphology, it highlights the importance of understanding the potential impact of OCs on the brain. The objective is not to discourage the use of COCs but to heighten awareness of their potential effects on the brain.

As science delves deeper into this relatively unknown arena, it becomes imperative to consider the intricate interplay between oral contraceptives and women's health, fostering a nuanced understanding that goes beyond the conventional discourse surrounding their physical effects as well as the challenges that persist, particularly in addressing gender stereotypes and misinformation.

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