Does the pill make brains bigger?

NHS Choices
United Kingdom

August 18, 2010

“Contraceptive pills increase the size of certain parts of women’s brains, improving memory and social skills”, reported The Daily Telegraph.

This news story is based on a small study that looked at brain structure in 14 men and 28 women, half of whom were using hormonal contraception. It found that certain areas of grey matter in the brain were larger in women taking hormonal contraceptives than in women not using hormones, and in women in their early phase of their menstrual cycle compared to later in the cycle. The researchers say that this shows that both these factors can affect the human brain structure.

However, this study is too small to conclude that the Pill or the menstrual cycle affects the volume of grey matter in the brain. There is no way of knowing what other factors, including genetic factors, may have had an effect on these participants’ brains as no other data was taken. Also, since it did not actually examine or measure cognitive performance, it cannot shed any light on how the Pill might affect cognitive or social skills.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg and Paracelsus Private Medical University of Salzburg. It was funded by the Austrian Academy of Science. The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Research.

The Mail’s report, which included claims that the Pill “enhances the brain’s conversation hub”, exaggerated the significance of the study. There is no basis in the study for the newspaper’s claim that the Pill makes women brainier, nor for a similar report in the Telegraph that it improves memory and social skills.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.