How hormonal birth control may affect the adolescent brain: Research in rats hints at increased stress, signaling changes

Reproductive health experts consider hormonal contraceptives good choices for adolescents because they’re safe and highly effective at preventing pregnancy, but one aspect of their effect on the teenage body remains a mystery — whether and how they modify the developing brain.

New research in young rats links the synthetic hormones found in birth control pills, patches and injections with disordered signal transmission between cells in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that continues to develop throughout adolescence. Compared to control rats, the animals receiving 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, a region where mood is regulated, because some previous research has associated early adolescent use of hormonal contraceptives with risk for depression in adulthood. But what’s most important, the researchers said, is learning how birth control affects the developing brain so individuals can weigh the risks and benefits of their reproductive health choices.

“Birth control has had a major positive impact for women’s health and autonomy — so it’s not that we’re suggesting adolescents should not take hormonal contraceptives,” said senior study author 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 we can make informed decisions — and if there are any risks, then that’s something that needs to be monitored. Then if you decide to use hormonal birth control, you would pay more attention to warning signs if you knew of any possible mood-related side effects.”

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

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