A brain region called the hypothalamus is smaller among women who use birth control pills, compared with non-users, a new study finds. Birth control pills may slightly alter the structure of women’s brains, according to a new study. 

The study found that women taking the pill, or oral contraceptives, had a smaller hypothalamus than women not taking the pill. The hypothalamus is a pea-size structure deep inside the brain that helps regulate involuntary functions, such as appetite, body temperature and emotions. It also serves as a link between the nervous system and endocrine system, a network of glands that produce hormones.

About 150 million women use oral contraceptives worldwide, according to a 2019 report from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Despite their widespread use, research looking at how oral contraceptives affect the brain is sparse. “It’s a pretty understudied area,” said Dr. Michael Lipton, professor of radiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who led the recent research.

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