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Is An Easily Reversible Male Contraceptive On The Horizon?

March 10, 2022
Medically reviewed by Steven N. Gange, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on March 8, 2022

Women have come a long way in the last 5,000 years. Men, not so much –– at least when it comes to birth control. Just over the past few decades, women have deployed the patch, the sponge, the diaphragm, and the shot in a never-ending quest to regulate reproduction. Even when some options were removed from the market, newer models quickly replaced them. All of them were, of course, heralded by the drug known simply as “the pill” –– the status-quo changing, cycle-regulating, once-a-day birth control option that earns partial credit for not only reducing birth rates but for female freedom and empowerment as well. Men get a thin rubber sock. It’s only slightly different from the goat’s bladder deployed by King Minos of Crete who used it to protect his wife from the “serpents and scorpions” infecting his semen way, way back in 3,000 BCE. Recently, research involving magnets and mice could yield a method more sanitary than a rubber and more reversible than a vasectomy. So what is it and what’s the likelihood of it becoming an option?

 

Condom Confusions

 

The decision to be a dad is an important one. For both genders, becoming parents before age 30 is increasingly unpopular. Since the beginning of the 21st century, birth rates in countries as demographically different as the United States, Mexico, and China have plummeted. Places like Western Europe and Japan are far below replacement rate, meaning their populations are declining. There are too many reasons to list — from high rent and student loans to climate change and the fact that babies are messy and loud. In the U.S., for example, a growing cohort of people in their prime reproductive years plan to never be parents. For those who have offspring, many are finding that children aren’t potato chips –– it’s pretty easy to just stop with one. 

 

While there are other factors driving declining birth rates, a significant one has to be the Food and Drug Administration’s 1960 approval of Enovid-10 –– the world’s first commercially produced birth-control pill. That pill — and the assorted variations which followed — works by imitating the second half of the ovulatory cycle, deploying artificial progesterone to stop signals from the brain that initiate development of the egg. Because it stops ovaries from producing a vital hormone (estrogen), it’s topped off with an artificial version. Increasingly women have voiced concerns about emotional and physical changes from the pill even as growing numbers choose other options.

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Birth Control - Pill Side Effects

Birth Control - Pill Side Effects

Still, planning parenthood would be infinitely harder without a plethora of birth control choices. The privilege and responsibility for those has frequently fallen on the female. For while men can and in many cases should “condomize,” the truth is with committed couples condoms stop being a regular Friday night purchase. That’s partly because aside from a vasectomy or a rubber, dealing with the male reproductive system is simply more challenging. Focusing on female fertility means preventing implantation in a single egg. Men ejaculate literally millions of spermatozoa, all frantically swimming in hopes of transforming a fun night into a lifetime obligation. There are plenty of ways to reduce the number of sperm, though not all are reliable — too-tight tighty-whities for one. 

 

That’s because some research suggests if you’re not a boxer man (or a commando), keeping your testicles close to your tummy can heat them by up to six degrees more than if you were free-balling. As Dr. Jorge Chavarro, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and an author of a study on the phenomenon explains, “Any exposure [to heat] that significantly increases temperature is likely to affect spermatogenesis [or sperm production].That’s the main reason we have scrotums and testes that are external to the abdomen.”

 

But while a low sperm count is a constant cause of concern for couples hoping for parenthood, you only need one of those intrepid swimmers to reach the finish line for someone to call you “Daddy.” Men with low sperm counts become fathers every day. So how do you reduce reproduction from the male side? For obvious reasons, applying extra heat to a man’s groin in order to decrease sperm production is a nonstarter. But there is more than one way to toast your testes. A study recently conducted by the American Chemical Society, partly inspired by the sperm-reducing effects of too-tight trousers and underwear, has shown some promise. 

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Male Infertility - Risk Factors

Male Infertility - Risk Factors

The Study 

 

One novel form of male birth control relies on nanomaterials. These are super tiny particles that are some 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Many can’t even be seen with a microscope. In earlier research, scientists heated up nanomaterials and then injected them into the testes. This was unsurprisingly unpopular because of the obvious pain, skin damage, and lack of convenience. Then American Chemical Society researchers deployed magnetization as a heat source. When magnetic material is subjected to a high-frequency oscillating magnetic field, it creates a constant shift in polarity producing friction and, yes, heat.

 

After coating nanoparticles with citric acid and injecting them into a mouse’s bloodstream over the course of two days, researchers used magnets to guide the particles to the testes. Only then was an alternating magnetic field applied, heating nanoparticles to 104 F. This immediately shrank the testes and inhibited sperm production. The results were encouraging, The mice were unable to father little mice even one week later. However, sperm production gradually returned to a baseline so that by the second-month mark, the males were able to easily impregnate females. 

 

Not only does the treatment reverse itself, the nanoparticles are eventually eliminated and seem to pose no risk of physical harm. Of course, research is ongoing and even if successful in tests on humans, it won’t reach the market for years. Until then, it does seem like a growing number of young people have happened upon an historic and fairly obvious method of birth control. In the 21st century, it seems men in particular are having far less sex. That’s certainly one way to avoid becoming a father.

 

Written by John Bankston

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