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Birth Control Pills May Explain PTSD Syndrome Differences between the Sexes

Tim Boyer's picture

Women who use contraceptives that suppress sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone remember things differently than women who are not on the pill, states researchers at the University of California, Irvine. These differences may explain a sexual dimorphism with post traumatic stress syndrome disorder (PTSD) where women experience PTSD more frequently than men.

A recent paper published in the September issue of the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, by scientists at the University of California, Irvine reveals their latest finding that hormonal contraception via the birth control pill can alter a woman’s memory: Women on the pill have an increased ability to remember the gist of an emotional event, whereas women not on the pill are better at remembering specific details.

Previous research has shown that the hormones estrogen and progesterone are linked to the left-brain area memory centers in women. In men, typically it is more of a right-brain area function where memories are encoded and stored.

In the study, women were divided into groups who were either on the pill or not on the pill or any other hormonal birth control therapies. Both groups of women were shown photos of a woman, a child and a car accident. Some women from each group were told that the car had merely hit a curb, whereas other women from both groups were told that the car had hit the boy and critically injured him.

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One week later, women from both groups were tested for their recall of the photos and the narratives they were given. What the results showed was that women who were on the pill remembered more clearly the events that took place in which a boy was hit by a car and had to have his feet surgically reattached at the hospital. Women who were not on the pill, however, were more able to recall specific details such as a fire hydrant next to the car.

University of Illinois at Chicago professor of psychiatry and psychology, Pauline Maki, who was not part of the research, states that, “The fact that women on oral contraceptives remembered different elements of a story tells us that estrogen has an influence on how women remember emotional events.”

A PTSD Connection

The researchers of the study believe that these findings may play a significant role toward understanding why more women than men experience post traumatic stress disorder syndrome. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, the overall lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the United States is approximately 8 to 9 percent with the condition twice as common in women than in men.

The link between female hormones and emotionally charged situations appears to explain why men and women tend to recall similar events differently. According to the paper’s author, UCI graduate researcher Shawn Nielson, women who are on the pill who have lower levels of sex hormones associated with female reproduction may remember emotional events more similarly to the way men do.
Future research will look into whether the retention of details can be affected by hormones.

Source: UC Irvine release: Use of birth control pills alters memory - UCI