UCSB postdoctoral researcher Caitlin Taylor has received a grant to study the brain structures of women who use oral contraceptives.
Dr. Taylor won the 2019 Harvey L. Karp Discovery Award that recognizes exceptional postdoctoral scientists and provides funding for their research, according to a Monday UCSB news release, .
Dr. Taylor said the grant will be used to provide her with a salary during her study, which will compare brain images of women who use oral contraceptives and those who do not.
Dr. Taylor will be looking for differences in the volume of gray matter between the study groups. During an interview on Monday, Dr. Taylor said she is especially interested in the differences in gray matter volume in the areas of the brain that control memory and other cognitive functions.
She noted, however, that her study is limited to physical differences and more research will be needed to determine what impacts those brain differences may have on women’s health.
Research on the effects of oral contraceptives on the brain is limited and most of the studies that are available used small study groups, she said.
Her project will create the University of California Women’s Brain Initiative, a brain imaging database that will eventually compile scans from women at all UC campuses with brain imaging centers. So far, UCSB and UC Berkeley have committed to participate in the initiative.
“By leveraging the resources of all these campuses, we’re hoping to create a system that everyone will be able to use,” said Dr. Taylor, who explained that researchers in related fields will won’t have to rely on their own smaller sample sizes.
Dr. Taylor will be working with UCSB assistant professor Emily Jacobs, who studies the effect of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone on women’s cognitive health during menopause.
Dr. Taylor explained that menopause causes women to produce less of these hormones, and similarly oral contraceptives suppress women’s natural production of sex hormones. Contraceptives usually provide synthetic hormones to replace the natural ones, but it’s not clear whether women’s bodies react to them as if they were natural.
“I took birth control for a decade, so I was personally invested,” said Dr. Taylor.
She became interested in the subject during a conference on sex differences between men and women.
“I was amazed that we are still asking a lot of these questions about sex differences. So, I knew I wanted to study something related to hormones and sex.”
Dr. Taylor graduated from Georgetown University in 2016 with a doctorate in neuroscience. Her project is also supported by the 2019 Hellman Fellowship and a 2019 UCSB Academic Senate grant.