Sex hormones aid in the physiological transformation of the human body during various life stages such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. While these naturally occurring chemicals impact the body, little research has been conducted to determine how they affect the brain. Enter Emily Jacobs, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, and Caitlin Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCSB. These scientists are studying how hormones shape the brain to understand who is likely to experience healthy cognitive aging and who is not, particularly before, during, and after menopause.
While Jacobs focuses on observing naturally occurring sex hormones, Taylor’s research examines sex hormones found in oral contraceptives, specifically in the birth control pill. In an interview with The Bottom Line, Taylor mentioned that she was on the pill for a decade before she realized she was ignorant of how estrogen and progesterone were impacting her brain’s functionality. She said this motivated her to pursue her current research as “the pill has been around for more than 60 years and we’ve had the capacity to ask questions about the brain for 25 years and we’re just asking them now.”
Among other factors, Taylor considers which oral contraceptive a woman is on, when she began taking it, and how long she has been on or off of it. She noted that questions about one’s general health have often been asked without regard to sex differences, effectively neglecting topics concerning women’s health. One way she plans to shine a light on these matters is by developing and using the University of California Women’s Brain Initiative, which is expected to be the largest brain imaging database dedicated to advancing women’s health.
Taylor and Jacobs are currently working on expanding the imaging center at UCSB to all eight UC campuses in order to access a larger sample size — ~10,000 participants annually — and allow researchers across campuses to use any of the data. Previously, Taylor only received data from a few hundred people per year by asking participants of various studies to answer health-related survey questions at the end. With the University of California Women’s Brain Initiative, the process is expedited as any time a person gets a brain scan at any of the institutions, their brain imaging data is entered into the database.
Taylor is also a recipient of the 2019 Harvey L. Karp Discovery Award, which recognizes exceptional postdoctoral scientists and provides funding to support their innovative research. Along with this award, the funding for the database is supported by a 2019 Hellman Fellowship and a 2019 UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate grant awarded to Jacobs.
Thus far, working in the Jacobs Lab has been “wonderful, collaborative, and encouraging,” according to Taylor. She added that her colleagues recognize the importance of her research and find questions related to sex hormones and women’s health motivating and exciting. As of now, the results will inform Taylor of any structural differences in the brain but won’t yet reveal any facts about the effects of sex hormones on the brain’s cognition or functionality.
Although she is presently focusing on hormones in the birth control pill due to its longevity and prevalence on the market, Taylor told The Bottom Line that she is interested in collecting data from anyone, regardless of gender or reproductive health history, and would eventually like to look at other forms of contraception as well. She also expressed optimism that merely telling people about her research and opening up the conversation will make people more thoughtful consumers of hormonal contraception. She said her hope is that women will possess “increased agency and understanding of what they’re doing to themselves as they take the pill.”
Lastly, Taylor stressed that she is not against the pill, remarking that is has been a powerful tool for women; she said, “I’m hoping that whatever we find will help motivate the improvement of the pill and provide more knowledge for people when they want to use some form of hormonal birth control.”