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How Pregnancy Physically Changes a Woman’s Brain

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Pregnancy causes changes to the brain structure that may allow mothers to adapt to care for babies, according to new research.

by / Views 85 / January 5, 2016

One young woman described it best when she told me that becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live. I always liked this description because it’s more precise than the shorthand most people use for life with a new baby: Everything changes

Lots of things do change. But for new mothers, some of the starkest changes are also the most intimate ones – the emotional changes. Which, it turns out, is also largely neurological. Pregnancy causes changes to the brain structure that may allow mothers to adapt to care for babies, according to new research.

Even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy tinkers with the very structure of her brain. Scientists are only recently beginning to definitively link the way a woman acts with what’s happening in her prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes, and other parts.
The team who conducted this study, led by Òscar Vilarroya from the University of Barcelona (UAB), looked at the brain structure of women before and after a pregnancy, tracking any changes over a period of more than five years in total. They also compared MRI scans of 25 first-time mothers and 19 male partners, with scans from 20 women who had never had a baby or been pregnant, and 17 male partners. This is the fist clinical study of its kind.

The Results

The team found a symmetrical reduction in grey matter in the medial frontal and posterior cortex line, and in some areas of the prefrontal and temporal cortex. These areas overlapped with regions of the brain related to empathy. These regions became activated while the mothers looked at images of their babies. There was no evidence of changes to the men’s gray matter. Although it is unclear that if it is a result of biology or time spent with the infant.
Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. These changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.

“Baby Brain” Debunked?

Contrary to popular belief, there was no suggestion in the study that pregnancy caused cognitive deficits or impacted memory function. This partially debunks the ‘baby brain’ accusations pointed at pregnant women. In fact, according to the study, it’s quite the opposite. The results showed a neurological evolution where increases in brain function allow for greater empathy towards an infant.

For further reading, please visit Wired.

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