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Pill research in Salzburg

The brain in focus The journey to personalised medicine

The contraceptive pill just celebrated its 60th birthday and was again the subject of heated discussion this year on its anniversary, “Pill Day”, 18 August. It was a milestone in birth control and is now one of the most studied medicines. Nowadays, there are numerous different versions with varying compositions of active ingredients, and are used by hundreds of millions of women worldwide. Nearly every woman in Austria has had experiences with the pill – some very positive, others negative. Women react very differently to taking different pills. While some women have no problems when taking the pill, other women have negative experiences.

This is where pill research in Salzburg comes in. Research has been underway for years and is now being funded by a prestigious ERC Starting Grant. In a collaboration between the University Hospital for Gynaecology and Obstetrics at Paracelsus Medical Private University Salzburg (PMU) and the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg (PLUS), a comprehensive study is investigating the influence of the pill on women’s brains.

Something that may seem paradoxical at first is actually obvious when we take a closer look: the brain is not only the control organ of our hormone system, but also a target organ for the effect of sex hormones in all life situations – both in women and men. “We think that the brain may hold the key to individual pill responses,” says Prof. Belinda Pletzer from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the PLUS. Differences in neurophysiology could explain why the pill improves or worsens women’s moods. These shifts have been observed since women started taking the pill, but until now it has been difficult to predict how a woman will react to a particular pill.

For Professor Thorsten Fischer, Director of the University Hospital for Gynaecology and Obstetrics, “this is extremely important, because a deterioration in mood means a great deal of suffering for those affected – and it is no coincidence that this is one of the most frequently cited reasons why women stop taking the pill. In this light, it is astonishing that the brain was not made the focus of pill research a long time ago”.

In addition to the academic input, Pletzer and Fischer, the two lead researchers, are pleased that the good cooperation between the two universities, PMU and the PLUS, could pave the way for further joint projects in this field. “This of course boosts Salzburg as a top location for scientific research,” the two are unanimous.

Women aged 14 and over who are interested in taking the pill can get involved in the study. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), images of the brain are taken before, during and, if necessary, after taking the pill. Participants are asked to provide detailed information about their mood. The two universities are also investigating whether there is a connection to various cognitive tasks. The results of the study could pave the way for more personalised counselling and enable women to make a contraceptive decision based on more accurate information.

Contact details for interested participants

E- Mail: | Phone: +43 (0)5 7255-58824

Responsible for the study

DDR. Belinda Pletzer

Prof. DDr. Belinda Pletzer (Paris Lodron University of Salzburg): | Photo: © Andreas Kolarik, Herbert Rohrer

Thorsten Fischer, PMU

Prof. Dr. Thorsten Fischer (University Hospital for Gynaecology and Obstetrics):  | Photo: © SALK

Forscherin im Labor

Photo: © Luigi Caputo