According to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), the use of oral contraceptives can alter the way a woman remembers emotional events. The research was published in the September issue of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. The study reported that after viewing slides on an emotionally arousing topic, women taking birth control pills demonstrated enhanced memory of the central information; in contrast, women who were not taking them showed an enhanced memory of the story details, but not the gist. Lead author Shawn Nielsen, PhD noted, “What is most exciting about this study is that it is showing that the use of hormonal contraception alters memory. There are a number of disorders of emotional memory that disproportionately affect women, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. If this is in any way connected to how women remember an emotional event in their lives, it may provide insight into the underlying neurobiology. Are sex hormones involved? How do they interact with stress hormones? This is a good starting point from which to begin that research.”
The researchers randomly assigned women who were taking birth control pills and those who were not to view an emotional story or an emotionally neutral story presented as slide shows. Both groups viewed 11 slides, which showed the same images; however, the narrative associated with each image was different. Dr. Nielsen explained, “In the emotional version, a mother and son are walking along, the child gets hit by a car, they rush into the hospital, and they try to reattach his severed feet, so it’s pretty emotionally arousing.” She added, “In the neutral version, the mother and son are walking along, they pass the scene of a minor accident, they go to the hospital to practice a disaster drill, so it’s a lot less arousing than the emotional version.”
Each participant’s eye movements and pupil dilation changes were recorded as they viewed the story. In addition, saliva samples were taken throughout the sessions to examine salivary alpha-amylase, a biomarker for norepinephrine. A week later, the women were called in for a surprise memory test. The researchers found that the women who were not taking birth control pills showed enhanced memory of story details, but not of central information, or gist, in the emotional compared with the neutral story conditions. In contrast, the women taking birth control pills showed enhanced memory of gist, but not story details, in the emotional compared with the neutral story conditions.
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