A new study from Leiden University in Holland has suggests that pregnancy causes long lasting changes in the brain that may improve the mother’s ability to care for her offspring. Examining brain scans, the research showed that the volume of grey matter decreased in certain areas of the brain in women who had been pregnant, with the changes lasting at least two years.
One of the study’s co-authors, Elseline Hoekzema, said:
“These changes were remarkably consistent. So consistent that a computer algorithm could automatically identify which of the women in our sample had been pregnant between the sessions and which [had] not.”
The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggested that these changes serve to help mothers understand the needs of their baby, and heightens the formation of a bond between mother and child.
“Brain changes may sound somewhat intimidating, but our findings suggest that there may be an evolutionary purpose to these changes that may serve you in some way when you become a mother,” according to Hoekzema.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of 25 mothers before and after pregnancy. Those scans were also compared to scans of 20 women who had not become pregnant, 19 fathers, and 17 men who did not have children. The research showed a decrease in the volume of grey matter, that the authors suggest shows a fine-tuning of functions of the brain relating to motherhood. Many of these changes involved parts of the brain responsible for social processes such as empathy and relating to others, areas that overlap with what’s called the “theory of mind network.”
The researchers stressed that these changes revolved around the attachment between mother and child, and did not indicate any changes relating to memory or intelligence. Hoekezema said “It is important to stress that our findings do not suggest any link to changes in general cognitive abilities or intelligence.”
Dr. Kirstie Whitaker, a neuroimaging expert from Cambridge University, said:
“[It] is not that mothers are losing brain cells, losing grey matter in these regions, it is that they have actually have other cells come in to help reorganize and change up some of those connections to strengthen them, or at least make them more efficient.”
She compared these changes to those that occur in the brains of teenagers. She continued, saying:
“Being a new mum is hard and you have to adjust an awful lot. Your brain is going to be able to respond to that change and it is going to make it so that you can take care of this newborn bundle of joy.”