Birth Control and Memory

Researchers at the University of California- Irving have been looking into sex-based differences in memory. Their newest study looks at the impact of hormonal birth control on women’s memory in terms of emotional events. The research shows a distinct difference is the type of information women remember in connection with whether they are taking hormonal birth control or not. They are clear that the research does not indicate a deficit in memory, just a change.

According to the study women were split into two groups, women on hormonal birth control and those who were not. All the participating women were shown pictures of a woman, her son and a car accident. These pictures were accompanied by an auditory emotional story about the events of the car accident with each group being divided into further subgroups; each subgroup heard different stories. A week later, all participants were given a “pop quiz” on the pictures and stories they heard.

According to the results of the study, women who had been taking hormonal birth control, even for as little as one month, were more likely to remember the overall events described to them. Women not on birth control were more likely to remember the details described to them. Researchers believe this is because estrogen and progesterone impact memory functions in the “left brain,” which is typically where a woman is going to process and encode memories. In men, and women on hormonal birth control, this function centers in the “right brain.”

Researchers also think this difference may be linked to why women experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder more frequently than men. “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.”

While remembering the details versus the overall event doesn’t seem like a huge difference, the implications this research could have on understanding and treating PTSD could be monumental. If there is a solid basis in determining that hormones can and more importantly DO impact the way people remember emotional events, it can be concluded that they can also be used to help treat memory disorders, particularly PTSD. Though the researchers at this time intend to next focus on whether hormones impact retention of detail, I’m hoping someone takes a deeper look at the potential uses this research has for sufferers of PTSD.

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