Women who take hormonal contraceptives show superior object memory, study finds

New findings published in the journal Psychological Reports suggest that the use of hormonal contraceptives may improve young women’s performance on certain cognitive tasks. During the study, women who were taking hormonal contraceptives outperformed naturally cycling women on an object memory task that had them identify novel objects in a drawing.

Many research studies have investigated how female sex hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, might influence women’s cognitive functioning. Studies have also considered the effects of exogenous hormones — synthetic hormones administered through treatments like hormone replacement therapy or hormonal contraceptive pills.

Yet the overall research has yielded conflicting findings. Some research has linked high levels of estrogen and progesterone to improvements in areas like learning, visuospatial ability, and memory, while other studies have tied high levels of these hormones to impairments in cognition. Other studies have failed to detect any effects at all.

Furthermore, few studies have explored how hormone treatments might impact cognition among young women — a population with relatively high rates of hormonal birth control use. Study author Lauren L. Harburger and her team opted to address this gap in the research by comparing the cognitive performance of women taking hormonal contraceptives and naturally cycling women. They specifically tested for differences in spatial ability and object memory.

“I am interested in the effects of female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, on the brain and cognition,” explained Harburger, an assistant professor at Purchase College. “There is evidence from animal studies that ovarian hormones can influence the brain in areas critical to learning and memory. However, there is discrepancy in the human literature on whether or not naturally fluctuating levels of ovarian hormones during menstruation affect cognition. Many women take hormone contraceptives and it is important to understand their full effects on the brain and body.”

A sample of 59 female undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 27 participated in the study. Among the participants, 19 said they were taking hormonal contraceptives and 40 said they were not. During the study questionnaire, the women answered questions about their menstrual cycles, including the date of their last cycle, whether or not their cycles were regular, and whether they were currently menstruating. Participants then completed two cognitive tasks—a mental rotations task and an object array task.

The mental rotations task tested spatial ability. Participants were shown images of 3D objects and had to mentally rotate the objects to determine whether they matched other images. The object array task tested object memory. Participants were shown a drawing of an array of objects and studied it for one minute. The participants were then shown different versions of the array and had to indicate which objects had been moved or changed compared to the original image.

The results revealed that there were no significant differences in how the women taking hormonal contraceptives and the naturally cycling women performed on the mental rotations task. However, women taking hormonal contraceptives performed significantly better on the portion of the object memory task that asked them to identify new objects that had appeared in the array.

Of note, naturally cycling women who were menstruating at the time of the study outperformed the naturally cycling women who were not menstruating, on all aspects of the object memory task. However, these results were not significant. Future research might re-explore this possible link between menstruation and object memory.

“The present study suggests that hormone contraceptives may influence performance on some cognitive tasks,” Harburger told PsyPost. “Future studies should continue to examine the effects of hormone contraceptives on the brain and behavior. Interestingly, this study supports that menstruation may not impact cognitive performance.”

The findings align with evidence from mice studies linking exogenous estrogen and progesterone to improvements in object identity memory. However, they run contrary to some evidence that the use of hormonal contraceptives improves spatial ability. The researchers say these inconsistencies between study results may be due to interfering variables, such as sample size, type of cognitive task, or type of hormonal contraceptive.

“One limitation of the study is that participants in the hormone contraception group report taking many different types of hormone birth control,” Hamburger noted. “Different hormone contraceptives influence women’s hormone levels differently. It is possible that some hormone contraceptives are better for cognition than others. Future studies should compare the effects of different hormonal contraceptives to determine how each regimen impacts cognition. Understanding the full effects of hormone contraceptives allow women to make educated decisions about their health.”

The overall findings suggest that women taking hormonal contraceptives perform better on certain cognitive tasks. The study authors express the importance of further examining this understudied topic. “By further exploring this subject and gaining a deeper understanding of how hormone contraceptives affect cognition, women will be better able to understand how taking hormone contraceptives could impact their education,” the authors said, noting that many women begin taking these contraceptives during high school and college.

The study, “The Effects of Hormone Contraceptives and Menstruation on Object Memory and Spatial Ability in Young Women”, was authored by Christina A. Thrasher, Lily Otto, and Lauren L. Harburger.

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