Thursday, June 20, 2024

Women Quicker and More Accurate During Their Period, First of Its Kind Study Finds

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The first study of its kind shows women display enhanced cognitive and physical abilities during menstruation.

Participants displayed quicker reaction times and fewer errors during menstruation despite their own perceptions of poorer performance, as per new research from University College London (UCL) and the Institute of Sport, Exercise & Health (ISEH). This pioneering study, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, is the first to evaluate sport-related cognitive functions throughout the menstrual cycle. Supported by the FIFA Research Scholarship, the findings suggest that cognitive performance varies during the menstrual cycle, potentially influencing injury risk and overall women’s health.

Women are generally thought to be more susceptible to sports-related injuries during the luteal phase — the period between ovulation and menstruation — likely due to significant hormonal changes. However, the exact relationship between these hormonal shifts and increased injury risk remains unclear. The study involved 241 participants who undertook cognitive tests, such as reaction time and error rate assessments, on two occasions, 14 days apart. The researchers also collected data on mood and symptoms and used period-tracking apps to determine the participants’ menstrual cycle phases during testing.

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Runner Courtesy Christian Negroni

The cognitive tests simulated mental processes typical in team sports. For instance, one test required participants to press the space bar only when they saw a smiling face, assessing inhibition, attention, reaction time, and accuracy. Another test involved identifying mirror images in a 3D rotation task, evaluating spatial cognition. Additionally, a task measured spatial timing by having participants click when two moving balls collided on screen.

Despite participants’ reports of feeling worse and perceiving a negative impact on performance during menstruation, their actual performance improved. Reaction times were faster, and error rates were lower during menstruation. For example, participants’ timing was, on average, ten milliseconds (12 percent) more accurate in the moving balls task, and they pressed the space bar incorrectly 25 percent less often in the inhibition task.

Conversely, reaction times slowed during the luteal phase, which lasts 12 to 14 days post-ovulation until menstruation begins. Participants were, on average, ten to 20 milliseconds slower in this phase but did not make more errors.

“Research suggests that female athletes are more likely to sustain certain types of sports injuries during the luteal phase and the assumption has been that this is due to biomechanical changes as a result of hormonal variation,” Dr. Flaminia Ronca, the study’s lead author from UCL Division of Surgery and Interventional Science and ISEH, said in a statement. “But I wasn’t convinced that physical changes alone could explain this association.”

Dr. Ronca says that given that progesterone has an inhibitory effect on the cerebral cortex and estrogen stimulates it, making us react slower or faster, “we wondered if injuries could be a result of a change in athletes’ timing of movements throughout the cycle.”

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Courtesy Adidas

The study also suggests that a minor fluctuation in timing, such as ten milliseconds, could differentiate between sustaining an injury or not. In the colliding balls task, participants’ timing was, on average, twelve milliseconds slower during the luteal phase compared to other phases, a difference of sixteen percent.

Dr. Megan Lowery, another study author from UCL Surgery & Interventional Science and ISEH, added, “There’s lots of anecdotal evidence from women that they might feel clumsy just before ovulation, for example, which is supported by our findings here. My hope is that if women understand how their brains and bodies change during the month, it will help them to adapt.”

Professor Paul Burgess, senior author of the study from UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, emphasized the significance of this research, stating, “This study emerged from listening carefully to female soccer players and their coaches. We created bespoke cognitive tests to try to mimic the demands made upon the brain at the points in the game where they were telling us that injuries and problems of timing occur at certain times of the menstrual cycle.”

Professor Burgess expressed amazement at the lack of existing knowledge on this subject and hoped the study would inspire more interest in this critical aspect of sports medicine, saying, “As suggested by what the soccer players had told us, the data suggested that women who menstruate — whether they are athletes or not — do tend to vary in their performance at certain stages of the cycle. As a neuroscientist, I am amazed that we don’t already know more about this, and hope that our study will help motivate increasing interest in this vital aspect of sports medicine.”

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