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Birth control pill alters women's memories: study

Have you ever wondered why your memory of certain events is so different than everyone else's? Researchers have discovered that your birth control may be to blame.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine, have found that hormonal contraception, such as birth control pills, can alter women's memories. These medications don't harm their ability to remember, the researchers emphasize. Rather, women on birth control appear better able to recall the emotional impact of an event, while those not using contraceptives are better at recalling details.

"It's a change in the type of information they remember, not a deficit," graduate researcher Shawn Nielsen said in a press release.

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Ms. Nielsen and neurobiologist Larry Cahill said the findings fall in line with previous research on how sex hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, affect memory. These hormones have been linked with strong "left brain" memory, or analytical memory, but they are suppressed with the use of birth control. In effect, the latest findings suggest women on contraceptives may remember emotional events more like men do, relying on the right hemispheres of their brain, associated with intuition, to encode memory. (If you've always suspected men remember events in broad strokes, but not the details, the research suggests you may be right.)

The study examined how women using hormonal contraceptives remembered a car accident, compared with women who were not using contraception. All were shown photographs of a mother, her son and the car accident, and were told a story about what happened. Asked about what they remembered a week later, the women who had been using hormonal contraceptives clearly recalled the main series of events, such as the fact that the son had been rushed to hospital and that doctors worked to save his life. The women who were not using contraceptives remembered more details, such as the presence of a fire hydrant next to the car.

The researchers suggest these findings may contribute to explaining how men and women remember things differently.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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