Publication Date



Subtle changes in social cognition are associated with naturalistic fluctuations in estrogens and progesterone over the course of the menstrual cycle. Using a dynamic emotion recognition task we aimed to provide a comprehensive description of the association between ovarian hormone levels and emotion recognition performance using a variety of performance metrics. Naturally cycling, psychiatrically healthy women attended a single experimental session during a follicular (days 7–13; n = 16), early luteal (days 15–19; n = 14) or late luteal phase (days 22–27; n = 14) of their menstrual cycle. Correct responses and reaction times to dynamic facial expressions were recorded and a two-high threshold analysis was used to assess discrimination and response bias. Salivary progesterone and estradiol were assayed and subjective measures of premenstrual symptoms, anxiety and positive and negative affect assessed. There was no interaction between cycle phase (follicular, early luteal, late luteal) and facial expression (sad, happy, fearful, angry, neutral and disgusted) on any of the recognition performance metrics. However, across the sample as a whole, progesterone levels were positively correlated with reaction times to a variety of facial expressions (anger, happiness, sadness and neutral expressions). In contrast, estradiol levels were specifically correlated with disgust processing on three performance indices (correct responses, response bias and discrimination). Premenstrual symptoms, anxiety and positive and negative affect were not associated with emotion recognition indices or hormone levels. The study highlights the role of naturalistic variations in ovarian hormone levels in modulating emotion recognition. In particular, progesterone seems to have a general slowing effect on facial expression processing. Our findings also provide the first behavioural evidence of a specific role for estrogens in the processing of disgust in humans.

Document Type

Open Access Journal Article

Access Rights

Open Access

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.