Why birth control affects some women more than others

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Scientists discover estrogen-heavy pills hamper memory and increase anxiety in females with a certain gene variant

  • Estrogen alters a memory circuit in women with a gene variant
  • When women’s estrogen levels were maniupulated, there was activity in the hippocampus while performing a working memory task
  • However, during such tasks, activity in this area is typically suppressed
  • The researchers say this explains why women are affected differently by the pill as well have differences in their menstrual cycles

Birth control pills can seem like a lottery.

Some say it gives them mood swings, stress and even depression. Others insist it clears their skin and balances their emotions.

According to a new study, it could all boil down to your genes.

Although studies have long shown estrogen-heavy pills ease depression symptoms, researchers at the National Institutes of Health found it has the opposite effect in women who carry a certain gene variant.

Brain scans revealed modified activity was linked to changes in the sex hormone in women with the gene while they performed a working memory task (the ability to hold memories for a short time while performing a separate task).

The researchers say their findings not only shed light on individual differences in the menstrual cycle but also mechanisms underlying differences in the onset, severity, and course of mood and anxiety disorders.

A new study has revealed that the hormone estrogen - found in many oral contraceptives - alters a memory circuit in women with a gene variant, while performing a working memory task (the ability to hold memories for a short time while performing a separate task)

A new study has revealed that the hormone estrogen – found in many oral contraceptives – alters a memory circuit in women with a gene variant, while performing a working memory task (the ability to hold memories for a short time while performing a separate task)

The authors, from the National Institutes of Mental Health in Maryland, say that prior to the study, there was little evidence from research that might account for individual differences in cognitive and behavioral effects of sex hormones.

‘Why do some women report that estrogen replacement improved their memory, whereas large studies of postmenopausal estrogen therapy show no overall improvement in memory performance?’ they wrote.

The study hypothesized that estrogen alters circuit function by interacting with a gene that codes for brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

BDNF is a key protein in brain plasticity and acts on certain neurons to help support the survival of existing neurons and promote the growth and development of new ones.

Researchers experimentally manipulated estrogen levels in healthy women with one or the other version of the BDNF gene over a period of months.

Brain scan showed activity in the hippocampus, or the brain’s memory hub, in response to estrogen in women performing a working memory task – if they carried the gene variant.

However, activity in this area is typically suppressed during working memory, causing the researchers to conclude that the gene-hormone interaction affects thinking and behavior.

There is mounting evidence that sex steroids, such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone, play an important role in a number of serious mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Women who have episodes of depression associated with reproductive events (premenstrual or postpartum) are prone to them because of a heightened sensitivity to intense hormonal fluctuations.

While estrogen is an ‘upper’ when released naturally during the menstrual cycle, at high doses it has the opposite effect, according to Dr Deborah Sichel, a psychiatrist specializing in female mood disorders.

Estrogen induces side effects such as nausea, breast tenderness, headaches and lower libido.

‘Women may not notice their negative mood because they have been on the pill for so long, they don’t know what their mood would be like if they were off hormones,’ Dr Sichel told Shape.

‘These are all real biochemical disorders that can and should be treated.’

 

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