How pregnancy can change your brain

1:30PM, Dec 22nd 2011

By understanding how the maternal brain changes during and after pregnancy researchers hope to help at-risk mothers to cope better and give a reason behind what is commonly known as <i>baby brain</i>.

How pregnancy can change your brain
Image: Thinkstock

By understanding how the maternal brain changes during and after pregnancy researchers hope to help at-risk mothers to cope better, and give a reason behind what is commonly known as baby brain.

Studies lead by psychologist Laura M. Glynn of Chapman University, California, and her colleague Curt A. Sandman, of University of the California, Irvine are looking at how the massive hormonal fluctuations that pregnancy inflicts affects cognitive behaviour and other mood-related changes in the brain.

"We are trying to fill the significant gap in our understanding of this critical stage of most women's lives," Glynn explains.

The study shows that reproductive hormones ready a woman's brain for the demands of motherhood, helping her to be more attuned to her baby's needs. But there is a trade off — which is sometimes shown as impaired memory or "baby brain". However "the benefit is a more sensitive, effective mother", says Glynn which might be why mums wake up when the baby stirs while dads snore on.

The review published by the journal Association for Psychological Science compares how the mother can affect the foetus, but more interestingly how the foetus affects the mother.

It is easy to comprehend how a mother can affect the baby as the report backed up earlier findings that there is evidence that a woman's nutritional intake and state of mind during pregnancy can have an effect on the baby during pregnancy.

For example, maternal anxiety early in pregnancy which increases stress hormones can affect the baby's cognitive development. Also, a baby in-utero whose mother does not receive the nutrients required, or is malnourished can adapt better to a similar diet or lack of food once born, but may become obese if he/she eats normally.

But how does the baby affect the mother? The study found that foetal movement, even when the mother was unaware of it, had significant effects, such as raising her heart beat and signalling hormones that could lead to emotional behaviour.

Glynn said she was exited to further investigate that when the cells from the foetus passed through the mother's bloodstream, finding which region of the brain they were attracted to, could also have an effect on maternal behaviour.

Although the research is mostly conducted on mice and rats, Glynn encourages more research to finding a comprehensive picture of the persisting brain changes brought about by pregnancy could help many women with pre- or post-natal depression.

This study opposes the Australian study lead by Professor Helen Christensen from the Australian National University, who said that "baby brain" is a myth.

Watch Ms Christensen defend her claim in the video below.

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