Oral contraceptives and cognition: A role for ethinyl estradiol

Adriene M. Beltz, Elizabeth Hampson, Sheri A. Berenbaum

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63 Citations (SciVal)


This article is part of a Special Issue "Estradiol and cognition". Estrogens have been seen to play a role in human cognitive abilities, but questions remain about the cognitive impact of ethinyl estradiol, which is contained in many oral contraceptives (OCs). Inconsistencies in past studies likely reflect small samples and heterogeneous groups of OC users. The aims of the present work were to examine OC effects on sex-typed spatial and verbal abilities by (a) comparing mental rotations and expressional fluency in normally-cycling (NC) women and men to OC users considered as a heterogeneous group and then to homogeneous groups of OC users created by classifying pills according to their active constituents, and (b) determining the relation between synthetic hormone doses in OCs and mental rotations and expressional fluency. Participants were 136 men, 93 NC women, and 148 OC users, including homogeneous monophasic (n= 55) and triphasic (n= 43) OC groups, aged 18 to 30. years. Significant effects of OC use were seen in homogeneous group comparisons but not when OC users were considered as a heterogeneous group. On mental rotations, men outperformed women, and monophasic OC users outperformed NC women. The latter difference may be attributable to estradiol, as ethinyl estradiol was inversely related to spatial ability among OC users and was lower in monophasic than in triphasic users. On expressional fluency, NC women and monophasic OC users outperformed men, and monophasic users outperformed triphasic users. Thus, results show the importance of ethinyl estradiol and of considering pill constituents when studying the cognitive effects of OCs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-217
Number of pages9
JournalHormones and Behavior
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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