Women remember threatening pictures better during their luteal phase

In Wednesday’s post I alluded to an article by Nobuo Masataka showing that women are quicker to spot threatening stimuli, such as a snake, during the premenstrual (or luteal) phase of their menstrual cycle. So a short article in the current issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology caught my eye today.

Quick biology lesson for those of you that slept through 7th grade health class: the menstrual cycle can be split into follicular phase (menstruation happens at the beginning of this), ovulation, and luteal phase. During the mid-luteal phase, levels of the hormone progesterone are the highest.

This study compared women during their mid-luteal phase (when progesterone was high) to women during their non-luteal phases (when progesterone levels were low). They viewed a bunch of threatening and neutral pictures, and two days later came back to the lab to see how well they could remember the pictures under stress. Not surprisingly, women with higher progesterone levels remembered the threatening pictures better, and additionally, women with higher stress-induced cortisol (another stress hormone) levels remembered the threatening pictures better, as well. This means that progesterone and cortisol responses to stress work together to enhance memory of scary images. The only downside to this study is that they compared different women at different phases in their cycle, rather than following up the same women across their cycles, which would have better accounted for any individual confounding factors. The Masataka & Shibasaki (2012) study attempted to do this, but still didn’t follow a single participant over the entire course of her cycle.

Whether or not you remember this snake may depend on your progesterone levels. Photo: © Plasmatic | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Psychoneuroendocrinology, despite being a mouthful, is quickly becoming one of my favourite journals these days because of its interdisciplinary focus and its ability to bring together many areas of the life sciences. The articles published in it often display the interconnectedness of the human brain and body, and so I always look forward to reading it. One to check out if you are at all interested in the mind-body connection.


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