The not-so-bitter pill: Effects of combined oral contraceptives on peripheral physiological indicators of emotional reactivity

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Abstract

Combined oral contraceptives (COC) are used by millions of women worldwide. Although findings are not entirely consistent, COC have been found to impact on brain function and, thus, to modulate affective processes. Here, we investigated electro-physiological responses to emotional stimuli in free cycling women in both the early follicular and late luteal phase as well as in COC users. Skin conductance response (SCR), startle reflex, corrugator and zygomaticus activity were assessed. COC users showed reduced overall startle magnitude and SCR amplitude, but heightened overall zygomaticus activity, although effect sizes were small. Thus, COC users displayed reduced physiological reactions indicating negative affect and enhanced physiological responses signifying positive affect. In free cycling women, endogenous 17β-estradiol levels were associated with fear potentiated startle in both cycle phases as well as with SCR and zygomaticus activity during the follicular phase. Testosterone was associated with corrugator and zygomaticus activity during the luteal phase, while progesterone levels correlated with corrugator activity in the follicular phase. To the contrary, in COC users, endogenous hormones were not associated with electro-physiological measures. The results further underscore the importance of considering COC use in psychophysiological studies on emotional processing.

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