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It all started with a Mexican yam.
It was 1942 and a professor of chemistry from Pennsylvania, in the United States, was looking for an inexpensive source of progesterone.
At that time, the hormone had many uses. It was used among other things to prevent spontaneous abortions and to treat women going through menopause.
In fact, Russell Marker had already invented a way to make progesterone from a chemical substance of certain plants.
The scientist traveled there and took a copy of contraband from the country.
After discovering an inexpensive source of progesterone, the researchers began using it as a contraceptive.
A decade later, the contraceptive pill was born.
The secret of the pill
The economic and social effects of the pill have been well studied and documented.
From one day to the next, sex could be enjoyed without fear of becoming pregnant, and young women could continue their studies instead of raising children and housework.
However, from the beginning, the pill hid a secret.
A few years ago, scientists began to realize that the brains of women who took the pill looked fundamentally different.
Compared to women who were not taking hormones, some regions looked more typically “male”.
They also noticed behavioral changes . The women who took certain pills were not so good with words , something in which our gender stands out.
On the other hand, they were better at visualizing , mentally, an object in rotation, like men.
And finally, those who took a type of pill were better at recognizing faces , something men tend to be good at.
Disconcerting, is not it? For scientists it was too.
The reasons behind the changes
They often tell us that the pill contains estrogen and progesterone. But no pill contains these two hormones.
The pill contains synthetic versions that are made of more stable hormones that have been altered to mimic these hormones.
Each brand of combination pill on the market contains the same type of synthetic estrogen, ethinylestradiol, and one of eight synthetic progesterones, called progestin.
Ethinylestradiol prevents the body from releasing an egg every month, while the progestin thickens the cervical mucus and makes the uterus uninhabitable.
But while hormones are effective in preventing pregnancy, they are not exactly the same as our natural hormones.
The result is that these synthetic versions have effects that authentic progesterone would not cause.
On the internet there are thousands of examples of women who reported acne, sweating and excessive growth of v this body because of the pill.
These “masculine” effects have been very well studied and are real. The cause is surprising: according to a 2012 study, 83% of American women who take the pill are taking a version that contains progestin made from male hormones.
The male hormone used by these pills is a close relative of testosterone called nandrolone.
Being a powerful androgen (a hormone that influences the development of the male reproductive system), it can stimulate the development of typical male characteristics.
These effects have been known for decades: the first progestin that was manufactured, norethindrone, was androgenic.
In the 40s, 50s and 60s, pregnant women sometimes took large doses of norethindrone to prevent spontaneous abortions. But the hormone caused disturbing changes in their bodies: sweating, hair and pimples.
About one in five babies born to mothers who took it had male genitalia.
Today, the doses of progestin in the contraceptive pylori are much lower and the hormones are combined with synthetic estrogen, which cancels many of these male effects.
Still, it has side effects.
New versions of progestins (made of synthetic progesterones) have the opposite effect and are prescribed in many cases to treat acne or excess hair.
In general, the oldest and cheapest pills tend to contain androgenic hormones, while the new and more expensive ones contain antiandrogens.
But another problem is that they affect the brain.
In men, it is known that androgens released at puberty change the brain. This is also true for women, in whom relatively small amounts of testosterone can cause some parts of the brain to shrink and others to grow.
Given what we know about the power of these hormones, it is surprising that it was not until recently that we began to study whether the progestin made from male hormones has any impact.
“A lot of research has been done on physical side effects,” explains Belinda Pletzer, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Salzburg, Austria.
“Also about the emotional effects .. But very few studies have focused on the brain and cognition .”
Pletzser recruited a group of male and female volunteers, some of whom took the pill, and scanned their brains.
What he found was surprising.
The images revealed that several areas of the brain were larger in the women who took the pill , compared to the others. These areas are also larger in men, compared to women.
Other research also indicated that progesterone and testosterone can affect behavior.
What has been shown is that women who take birth control pills with androgenic progestin have less verbal fluency.
They are also better when it comes to mentally rotating objects.
This makes sense since it is estimated that men are slightly less eloquent than women in certain situations and have greater spatial awareness.
Other studies found that women who took oral contraceptives recalled emotional stories more in the way that men do ( the accent placed on the knot of the issue rather than the detail ).
Also, like men, they were less good at acknowledging emotions in others, such as anger, sadness or disgust.
It is as if certain types of pills “masculinize” the female brain .
The most striking evidence, however, comes from a study published in 2015.
In it, Pletzer compared the brains of women who took two types of pills with others who did not take any.
Several areas of the brain were larger in women taking pills that contained the new antiandrogenic progestins.
These changes seem to affect the behavior of these women.
Two brain areas in particular were more bulky: the area that processes the facial information , and the area that recognizes places.
These women were also better at recognizing faces.
Facial recognition is something that women tend to be very good at. This fits in with the idea that oral contraceptives subtly influence our brain.
In this case, the antiandrogenic pills accentuated femininity.
Several areas also showed bulging in women taking androgenic pills, including some that are typically larger in men.
To further complicate the picture, all the combined pills contain synthetic estrogen, which is feminizing.
This means that the brain of these women may be experiencing a both a masculinity effect and feminizing effect.
It can also that the contraceptive pills have a darker side.
As Pletzer wrote in 2014, when athletes take steroids we call it “doping.”
It is considered an abuse and is harshly condemned by society.
But we do not mind that millions of women take these hormones every day, sometimes from puberty to menopause.
Scientists do not yet know if any of these effects on the brain have a noticeable impact on our behavior.
But maybe it’s time we evaluate it.