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Birth control pills impair complex emotion recognition in healthy women: Study

Oral contraceptives, even if widely used, may leave unwanted and adverse health impacts in the long run. A recent study that featured in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggested that women who use oral contraceptives are less able to recognize facial expressions of complex emotions. Titled Oral Contraceptives Impair Complex Emotion Recognition in Healthy Women, the study stated, “Despite the widespread use of oral contraceptives (OCs), remarkably little is known about the effects of OCs on emotion, cognition, and behaviour. However, coincidental findings suggest that OCs impair the ability to recognize others’ emotional expressions, which may have serious consequences in interpersonal contexts.”

To further investigate the effects of oral contraceptives on emotion and recognition in women, the researchers tried to investigate whether women taking oral contraceptives were less accurate in the recognition of complex emotional expressions than women who were not using oral contraceptives.


For the purpose of the study, the team of researchers asked two groups of women to participate in an emotion-recognition task. The first group consisted of 42 healthy women who were on oral contraceptives, while the second group comprised of 53 healthy women who were not on the pill.

Alexander Lischke, a researcher in the Department of Physiological and Clinical Psychology/Psychotherapy at the University of Greifswald in Germany, and the senior author of the study explained, “If oral contraceptives caused dramatic impairments in women’s emotion recognition [as hypothesized]. We would have probably noticed this in our everyday interactions with our partners. We assumed that these impairments would be very subtle, indicating that we had to test women’s emotion recognition with a task that was sensitive enough to detect such impairments. We, thus, used a very challenging emotion recognition task that required the recognition of complex emotional expressions from the eye region of faces.” “Such emotional expressions included contempt and pride, which are more complex than the expressions of simpler emotions, such as fear or happiness”.

After analysis, it was found that even if both the groups were equally good at recognising easy expressions, the group of people on oral contraceptives were less likely to identify difficult expressions correctly. On a more specific note, women who took the pill were 10 percent less accurate in their emotion recognition than women who did not take the pill.

As reported in Medical News, Lischke stated, “Cyclic variations of estrogen and progesterone levels are known to affect women’s emotion recognition and influence activity and connections in associated brain regions. Since oral contraceptives work by suppressing estrogen and progesterone levels, it makes sense that oral contraceptives also affect women’s emotion recognition. However, the exact mechanism underlying oral contraceptive-induced changes in women’s emotion recognition remains to be elucidated.”