As we approach another Mother’s Day, I want to focus just a bit on how the brain changes in a young mother. Many young moms feel this very upsetting sense of not being as cogent or intact in their thinking or in their memory as they used to be.
It’s okay, says science, that these brain changes occur
Elise Proulx’s article (first published in Greater Good Berkeley) documents a process in pregnant women in which brain changes prepare them for the next set of moments as a new mother. Keep reading.
According to a new study, pregnant women lose gray matter in their brains—and this process helps them figure out what other people need and feel.
My fellow mothers will recognize the symptoms of so-called “mom brain”—that feeling of fuzzy forgetfulness that seems to strike many moms as we juggle diapers and dirty dishes. But does this condition have any basis in science?
A new study in Nature Neuroscience suggests the answer is yes. Pregnancy does seem to change a woman’s brain—perhaps permanently—so that she can better connect with other people.
Prior research has suggested the pregnant brain may have fuzzy moments—but they don’t last long. For example, memory function does decline, especially when it comes to verbal information, during the last trimester. But after the baby is born, mom’s memory and cognitive ability seem to bounce back. In fact, some studies have found motherhood actually makes rodents smarter.
The new study…
…by a team of researchers based in Spain, gathered four groups of participants: 25 first-time mothers, both before and after the birth; 20 women who had not yet had children; 19 first-time fathers; and 17 men without children.
These participants were scanned in a fMRI machine so that researchers could compare their brain structures. The changes they saw were mainly associated with gray matter, the brain tissue that contains neurons and synapses involved with memory, emotions, and decision-making, among other functions.
Pregnant women lost a significant amount of gray matter, in a pattern similar to what happens during puberty—another time when women experience a surge of sex hormones like estrogen. This adolescent “synaptic pruning” doesn’t mean we get dumber as teens. Instead, the brain is simply becoming more efficient and refined, in a process associated with healthy cognitive and emotional development. In other words, the teen brain is “leveling up” into greater maturity as it sheds gray matter it no longer needs.
Could something similar be happening with women when they go through pregnancy?
When the researchers scanned the brains of the same women two years later, the changes remained in place, suggesting they may be permanent. There were no similar changes in the brains of first-time fathers or childless men and women. In fact, note the authors, the pattern was so distinctive that it could be used to tell whether a woman had ever given birth.
The biggest changes were concentrated in the cerebral cortex, which—among its many functions—plays a key role in processing relationships with other people. The areas that showed pruning were specifically related to the “theory of mind” network—that is, the part of the brain that tries to figure out what people are thinking and feeling. The researchers speculate that this may enhance mothers’ ability to accurately guess their infant’s emotional states and meet their needs.
To test their theory, the researchers showed the women in the study photos of their own babies while administering an fMRI. Indeed, the parts of the brain affected by the grey matter changes were also the areas that lit up the most in response to pictures of the mothers’ own babies (when compared to photos of other people’s infants). In addition, the researchers found that the change in gray matter “significantly” predicted the quality of mother-to-infant attachment, as assessed through a survey. The more gray matter lost, the more positive the mothers felt about interactions with their baby.
In other words, the changes that unfold in a pregnant woman’s brain almost certainly indicate that she’s growing as a person—especially when it comes to figuring out what other people need and feel.
So, new moms, don’t feel too bad about “mom brain.” You may be forgetful at times, but you’re primed to forge a stronger bond with your baby.
So there is in reality a growth process in the brain that actually helps moms and their babies bond more powerfully. It is really a beautiful process of growth and preparation for a lifetime of experience between mom and child. How incredible are our brains!
I do want to wish every mom a great Mother’s Day!
I hope you all sense a great deal of love and appreciation from your family. I also hope you feel a great sense of satisfaction in how you have worked so diligently to leave a legacy of healthy and empowered children!
Thank you for all you have done for each of your children! Happy Mother’s Day!
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network