Birth Control Pills May Make It Harder for Women To Identify Complex Emotions

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Dr. Alexander Lischke, Dipl.-Psych. Universität Greifswald Institut für Psychologie Physiologische und Klinische Psychologie/Psychotherapie University of Greifswald, Germany

Dr. Lischke

Dr. Alexander Lischke, Dipl.-Psych.
Universität Greifswald
Institut für Psychologie
Physiologische und Klinische Psychologie/Psychotherapie
University of Greifswald, Germany

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: We know for a long time that cyclic variations in womens’ estrogen and progesterone levels affect their emotion recognition abilities by modulating neural activity in brain regions implicated in emotion processing. We also know that oral contraceptives suppress cyclic variations in womens’ estrogen and progesterone levels. We, thus, assumed that oral contraceptives would affect womens’ emotion recognition abilities due to the aforementioned suppression of cylic variations in estrogen and progesterone levels that modulate neural activity in brain regions during emotion processing. To test this assumption, at least with respect to the behavioral effects of oral contraceptive use on emotion recognition, we performed the current study.

We recruited regular cylcling women with and without oral contraceptive use for our study. None of the women were in psychotherapeutical or psychopharmacological treatment at the time of the study. During the study, women performed a emotion recognition task that required the recognition of complex emotional expressions like, for example, pride or contempt.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings? 

Response: Comparing task performance between women with and without oral contraceptive use revealed that women with oral contraceptive use were less accurate in the recognition of complex emotional expressions than women without oral contraceptive use. Interestingly, these differences were most pronounced during the processing of expressions that were difficult to recognize, suggesting specific rather than general impairments in emotion recognition under oral contraceptives.

We will run follow-up studies to investigate the neural effects of oral contraceptive use on emotion recognition. This will allow us to fully elucidate the neurobiological mechanism underlying oral contraceptive related changes in emotion recognition on the behavioral and neural level.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Currently, readers do not have to worry that oral contraceptives turn users into emotional zombies. Women with oral contraceptive use showed rather subtle impairments in emotion recognition, leaving open whether these impairments have profound effects on their social life.  

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: We hope that our study encourages other researchers to conduct similar studies, in particular studies that follow a experimental rather than observational approach. Ideally, these studies should combine behavioral and neural measures to investigate oral contraceptive related differences in emotion recognition on the behavioral and neural level in larger samples of women with or without oral contraceptive use.

These studies should also investigate whether possible differences in emotion recognition are due different types of oral contraceptives or due to different durations of oral contraceptive use. These studies may help to elucidate the neurobiological mechanism underlying oral contraceptive related changes in emotion recognition on the behavioral and neural level.  

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Response: It is important to note that we found rather subtle impairments in emotion recognition in women using oral contraceptives. It, thus, remains to be investigated whether these impairments are sufficient enough to lead to misunderstandings or conflicts in interpersonal contexts. We will address this issue in a follow-up study.

Citation:

Rike Pahnke, Anett Mau-Moeller, Martin Junge, Julia Wendt, Mathias Weymar, Alfons O. Hamm, Alexander LischkeOral Contraceptives Impair Complex Emotion Recognition in Healthy Women. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2019; 12 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2018.01041

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