Before she even sees two pink lines appear on a test, a woman’s body is transforming. Some changes become more evident as time progresses; hormone shifts produce feelings of nausea and an expanding uterus causes those skinny jeans to feel a bits skinnier than usual, but some of the most long-lasting effects aren’t quite as obvious.
In 2016, a study took place unlike any experiment done before. Scientists measured, scanned, and evaluated the brains of over 75 participants in order to determine the physical changes that occur in a woman’s brain due to pregnancy. Their findings showed a host of adaptations made by the body in order to accommodate the growing child, and some of those adaptations appear to be permanent.
Goodbye Gray Matter
Part of what makes the brain such a remarkable organ is its ability to change and adapt. It can be trained to create new pathways and end old ones; it can suppress painful moments and replay beautiful ones. And when it comes to motherhood, it can sharpen the body’s ability to tune into another’s wants and needs.
Neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema knew that various animal studies existed that clearly showed an association between pregnancy and long-lasting anatomical brain changes— but no scientist had replicated such a study on humans. Using MRI scanning, Hoekzema and her team examined the brains of 25 women who had never had children, both before they became pregnant and again from 3 weeks to a few months after they gave birth. Then, they used computer-based analysis to measure changes in gray matter volume.
Gray matter makes up the outermost layer of the brain, has a pinkish-gray tone, and serves to process information in the brain. Upon examining the mothers’ brains postpartum, Hoekzema found a highly consistent loss in gray matter volume, particularly in the areas of social cognition and memory.
Social cognition includes a mother’s ability to observe and gauge what someone else is thinking and feeling; it could assist a parent in decoding a child’s coos and cries and help her to more efficiently meet the baby’s needs. The loss of matter volume in this area could seem detrimental, but scientists suggest quite the opposite.
“It’s making things more organized, streamlined, and coherent to prepare mothers for the complexity and urgency of childcare,” one scientist explains. “If neurons are closer together, or neural connections reorganized in order to more effectively, reliably, and rapidly process critical information, it’s easier to imagine why this might help the maternal brain respond to the needs of her baby.”
Such changes in the postpartum brain are consistent across the board, and interestingly, they appear to remain over long periods of time. Two years after the initial study, 11 of the 25 mothers—those who had not become pregnant again—returned for MRI scans. The scans showed that gray matter loss remained—except in the hippocampus, where most volume had been restored. These alterations were so consistent that scientists were able to utilize a computer algorithm to predict with 100% accuracy whether a woman had been pregnant or not simply by viewing her MRI scan.
Mom Brain Is Real
The findings of the mom brain study seem impressive, but such drastic improvements in maternal social cognition could come at a cost. All moms have experienced the forgetfulness that seems to arrive promptly with the delivery of a newborn baby. Her coffee is forgotten in the microwave, she lost her car keys for the fourth time today, and what day was that wellness check-up again?
Blame it on sleepless nights or multitasking, but Hoekzema’s study proves that moms aren’t imagining the development of a more forgetful “mom brain”. While the areas of social cognition appear to be fine-tuned, the hippocampus, a region associated with memory, also loses volume, and the results aren’t so positive.
Abigail Tucker, author of “Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct,” says that an analysis of multiple studies concluded that women do experience cognitive changes like forgetfulness and trouble with verbal recall in the immediate months and years after giving birth , and these changes can be visually seen on MRI scans.
But take heart, mamas; our brains are more resilient than you may think. While scans showed a permanent change in social cognition volume, almost all study participants experienced regrowth in gray matter in the hippocampus region of the brain, suggesting that “mom brain” does not appear to be a permanent transformation.
The birth of a child affects mothers in a phenomenal way; both physically and mentally. Give yourself grace as you navigate this life change, and remember that your body (and your brain!) were made for this.
Sources: Simply Psychology, Science.org, USA Today, BrainFacts.Org, Washington Post