Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Hormones & Human Behaviour

How do hormones impact our behaviour? Psychology Professor Kirsten Oinonen and her colleagues are conducting research at Lakehead to find the answers.

Erin Collins
Published October 22, 2010

Lakehead University alumna Kirsten Oinonen (MA'97, PhD'03) and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology are investigating how hormonal contraceptives affect mood, how hormones affect visual sensitivity, and the impact of hormonal genes on women's health

Hormones − both natural and artificial – can have an effect on how we feel and, consequently, how we behave. Although some might be aware that the two are connected, how hormones impact our behaviour is a mystery to the general population. What hormones cause us to experience negative emotions? Can we control our mood through the manipulation of certain hormones? How or why do levels of certain hormones in our bodies increase or decrease?

Professor Kirsten Oinonen, Director of Clinical Training for the Clinical Psychology PhD Program at Lakehead University, is one of the professionals seeking answers to how hormones impact behaviour. Along with Professor Dwight Mazmanian, she currently directs Lakehead University's Health, Hormones, and Behaviour Laboratory. Oinonen's research concerns such topics as how hormonal contraceptives affect mood, how hormones affect visual sensitivity, and the impact of hormonal genes on women's health. Most recently, she has been studying the negative effects of oral contraceptives on women, as well as how to predict which women are prone to these side effects.

"One of the things we found was that oral contraceptives reduce positive affect reactivity," says Oinonen, when asked to summarize her major findings. "Another thing that I found, more recently, was that in terms of trying to predict which women suffer negative effects from oral contraceptives, those women who have a lower 2D:4D (the ratio of the length of a person's index finger to ring finger) and have less middle phalangial hair seem to experience more oral contraceptive mood side effects. I've also been collaborating with Professor Carney Matheson in the DNA Lab to look at some hormonal genes to see if they might predict which women will experience side effects."

"Positive affect" refers to the capacity of an individual to have positive emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm. Therefore the use of oral contraceptives by women, as found by Oinonen, may reduce the degree to which women experience changes in these positive feelings over the course of the day. Thus, women may experience a restriction in their range of positive emotions. By characterizing those who are more prone to this and other negative mood side effects, Oinonen hopes her research will be used to educate women as to the possible side effects of oral contraceptives and the likelihood users will experience them.

"If women aren't aware that sudden depression or a restriction in their range of mood are potential problems with hormonal contraceptives, they might attribute their negative emotions to their partner or some other aspect of their life," says Oinonen. Therefore, she hopes that her research might eventually lead to some sort of screening method, in which those women more susceptible to the side effects of contraceptives can be counselled as to whether they should start on a particular type of oral contraceptive and what kind of symptoms they may experience.

Kirsten Oinonen has recently published a paper in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (Putting a finger on potential predictors of oral contraceptive side effects: 2D:4D and middle-phalangeal hair). Her collaboration with her former graduate student, Janelle Jarva, was published in Archives of Women's Mental Health (Do oral contraceptives act as mood stabilizers? Evidence of positive affect stabilization). Two of Dr. Oinonen's doctoral students, Jessica Bird and Meghan Richards, have also presented their master's thesis research on the role of an estrogen receptor gene in eating disorder symptoms and mood variability at the annual Canadian Psychological Association conference and at the International Congress of Psychology meeting in Berlin, Germany.

Erin Collins is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK – Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.

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