Ƶ Faculty, Student Research Examines Connection Between Anxiety-like Behaviors and Combined Hormone Contraceptives

Preliminary findings suggest synthetic estrogen could contribute to anxiety-related behavioral changes

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Dr. Prakapenka and Abigail Hegwood stand in front of their research poster.

From left: Alesia Prakapenka, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Biomedical Sciences, College of Graduate Studies (CGS-Downers Grove) and Biomedical Sciences graduate Abigail Hegwood, M.S., (CGS-Downers Grove MBS ’24), present their research project on estrogen type at the Endocrine Society Annual Meeting. 

Initial findings in an animal model study to examine different types of estrogens used in birth control formulations suggest a link between the synthetic estrogen, ethinyl estradiol, and anxiety-like behaviors. Alesia Prakapenka, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Biomedical Sciences, College of Graduate Studies (CGS-Downers Grove), worked on this research on the Downers Grove Campus with Biomedical Sciences graduate Abigail Hegwood, M.S., (CGS-Downers Grove MBS ’24) and Stacy Kujawa, Research Specialist, Biomedical Sciences, as part of Abigail’s master’s thesis project. 

Abigail discussed her curiosity about examining hormonal contraceptive formulations and the differences in how they impact clinical outcomes, including undesired side effects. “Mood and behavioral changes come up so often when we talk about birth control, but there is a huge research gap when it comes to understanding why and when they happen, and if certain formulations of hormonal contraceptives affect behavioral outcomes,” she said. Dr. Prakapenka stated, “The long-term broad perspective is to empower women to have basic science information on female-specific health outcomes available.” She added that with research, more informed decisions can be made that are individualized to each female based on her unique hormone profile and health-related needs. 

Their research examined the impact of estrogen plus progestin formulations over the course of 28 days, which is about six reproductive cycles for rats. During this time, 36 young-adult female rats were divided into three groups: one received a synthetic estrogen (ethinyl estradiol), one received natural estrogen (estradiol valerate), and one received the vehicle control (placebo), Dr. Prakapenka said. The groups with natural estrogen and vehicle control showed similar results, while the group with synthetic estrogen exhibited elevated anxiety-like behaviors. These behaviors are apparent when the rats spend less time in the open arms and more time in the closed arms of the elevated plus maze, which was used to assess the rats’ behavior. When rats spend more time in the open arms of the maze, researchers conclude that the rats have decreased anxiety-like behaviors, as was the case with the rat groups who were given natural estrogen or vehicle control. 

Dr. Prakapenka shared, “The benefit of using an animal model like the female rat is that we are able to focus on the hormones, how they're changing, and how much is being administered, while controlling for other environmental factors.” She also said that although the female rat reproductive cycle is similar to a human female, it is shorter in length as the rat’s cycle averages four to five days, which allows for a shorter timescale to conduct the research. 

The initial findings require more research before becoming applicable to humans, Abigail said and continued, “However, it may provide a basis for investigation on behavioral side effects of hormonal contraceptives.” Dr. Prakapenka shared, “What it signifies is that it matters what type of estrogen is used for exogenous administration to the female body.” She added future steps for investigation are to assess different reproductive histories of females and how they alter the anxiety profile. 

Abigail also expressed her appreciation for the support and the facilities available at Ƶ. “I am forever grateful to Ƶ for my passion for research, which will make me a better patient advocate during my medical career,” she said. “I hope to continue my research into the side effect differences between natural and synthetic estrogen formulations.” Dr. Prakapenka and Abigail presented this research at the Endocrine Society Annual Meeting, an international conference, and earned considerable media interest following the event.

Research opportunities are one of the advantages of an education at Ƶ to encourage students in all academic programs to supplement their classroom learning. Advanced research facilities are an integral aspect of the Downers Grove and Glendale campuses.  

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