“Baby Brain” Demystified

Let’s talk about babies… the miracle of life, a gift from above, life will never be the same, [insert baby cliche here]. Though arguably pretty cute and have been known to catch the hearts of their parents, are those tiny humans all that? Because creating them surely is not; a woman’s body will change gravely- particularly brain changes that can spark widespread change.  A woman will undergo changes in her body including, but not limited to (obtained from Healthline, 2017):

  • Increased hormone levels
  • Weight gain
  • Swollen feet
  • Sensory changes
  • Hair thinning
  • Stretch marks
Figure 1. Implications of pregnancy, obtained from Duarte-Guterman et al., 2019.

In addition to these physical symptoms, many women report changes in memory and learning during pregnancy, famously dubbed “baby brain”. These changes may include (obtained from Duarte-Guterman, Luener, & Galea, 2019):

  • Impaired verbal memory
  • Lack of attention
  • Decreased visuospatial abilities
  • Decreased processing speed

For more information on the changes experienced during pregnancy and fact sheets, please visit the Office on Women’s Health page

 But, are these impairments really the most characteristic part of the “baby brain” experienced by pregnant women? 

Though the cognitive changes in the brain vary person-to-person, physical changes in brain structure are relatively consistent amongst those experiencing pregnancy. The pregnant brain experiences changes in plasticity (the ability for the brain to change its structure and function) and volume during the gestation (pregnancy) period, oftentimes increasing plasticity and decreasing brain volume (Barha & Galea, 2017). Plasticity is not the only thing that changes during pregnancy. There have been studies showing that there is pronounced gray matter (the darker tissue in the brain, containing neurons) reduction in the brains of women who are either pregnant or have been pregnant lasting up to two years after pregnancy’s end (Hoekzema, Barba-Müller, Pozzobon, Picado, Lucco, García-García, Soliva, Tobeña, Desco, Crone, Ballesteros, Carmona, & Vilarroya, 2016; Nutt, The Washington Post, 19 Dec. 2016). Additionally, these gray matter effects were observed when pregnancy was achieved naturally and artificially (Hoekzema et al., 2017). Gray matter reduction was only found in the mothers undergoing pregnancy, not in fathers of the same child or other people assuming the role of new parenthood (Barha & Galea, 2017). 

Ok, so when someone gets pregnant, their brain just goes away? Is this why some women forget where they put their keys? That has to be ‘baby brain’, right?? Actually, no. No connections to cognitive impairment have been found in the brains directly related gray matter changes (Barha & Galea, 2017), though cognitive functioning has been observed to decline between first and second trimesters of pregnancy (Duarte-Guterman, Luener, & Galea, 2019).

Even with this in mind, cognitive functioning seems to return to normal when the baby is born. Some cognitive abilities are even enhanced, including executive functioning which includes short-term memory, the flexibility of thoughts, and decision-making are found to be enhanced in mothers up to 2-6 months postpartum (Duarte-Guterman et al., 2019). 

Ok, so when someone gets pregnant, their brain just goes away? Is this why some women forget where they put their keys? That has to be ‘baby brain’, right?? Actually, no. No connections to cognitive impairment have been found in the brains directly related gray matter changes (Barha & Galea, 2017), though cognitive functioning has been observed to decline between first and second trimesters of pregnancy (Duarte-Guterman, Luener, & Galea, 2019). Even with this in mind, cognitive functioning seems to return to normal when the baby is born. Some cognitive abilities are even enhanced, including executive functioning which includes short-term memory, the flexibility of thoughts, and decision-making are found to be enhanced in mothers up to 2-6 months postpartum (Duarte-Guterman et al., 2019). 

Gray matter loss is usually associated with psychopathology (the scientific study of mental illnesses) with grave consequences. Most notable of these is likely schizophrenia and the family of schizoaffective disorders. This psychopathological disorder has physical symptoms in the brain, including a loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (Ross, Margolis, Reading, Pletnikov, & Coyle, 2006), causing impairments on executive function. Another hot-button disorder is Alzheimer’s Disease, marked by a loss of memory and dissociation from the real world. Alzheimer’s also includes a loss of gray matter, particularly in the hippocampal / amygdalar region of the brain (Frisoni, Testa, Zorzan, Sabattoli, Beltramello, Soininen, & Laakso, 2002). While these disorders are serious and have real consequences for those suffering, they are not the only way gray matter loss affects the brain. 

In pregnant women, the gray matter loss is mainly in the frontal and temporal lobe regions. This loss has been associated with a heightened “theory of mind” ability and control (Barha & Galea, 2017). This “theory of mind” is the ability to infer the emotional states of other beings (Barha & Galea, 2017) and is important in caring for the young. When your baby is crying, it might come in handy to be able to infer why they are crying and be able to stop it! This ability to recognize the emotions of others is enhanced in new mothers, allowing them to better care for their offspring and likely has an evolutionary advantage. This gray matter loss also may improve the ability for social regions of the brain to communicate with one another (Hoekzema et al., 2016). Losing brain matter likely improves the connection (or at least reduces the distance) between brain regions, allowing for faster communication and a “sharper” mind. These changes are linked with the characteristics associated with motherhood: nurturing, conscientious, social-adeptness, etc. 

So, what have we learned? The “baby brain” changes are not only cognitive in nature but also include changes in gray matter, social skill, and plasticity. Additionally, these physical changes in the brain can last for up to two years postpartum, potentially even longer. With that, does being pregnant make you a better mother? I cannot say that, but many of the brain changes have positive implications for childcare and social awareness. And good luck out there future mothers! You are in for the wildest ride of all! 

References

Barha, C.K. & Galea, L.A.M. (2017). The maternal ‘baby brain’ revisited. Nature Neuroscience, 20, 134-135. 

Duarte-Guterman, P., Benedetta, L., & Galea, L.A.M. (2019). The long and short term effects of motherhood on the brain. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 53

Frisoni, Testa, Zorzan, Sabattoli, Beltramello, Soininen, & Laakso, 2002. Detection of grey matter loss in mild Alzheimer’s disease with voxel based morphometry. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry, 73, 657-664. 

Hoekzema, Barba-Müller,, Pozzobon, Picado, Lucco, García-García, Soliva, Tobeña, Desco, Crone, Ballesteros, Carmona, & Vilarroya. (2016). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience, 20, 287-296. 

Nutt, A. “Pregnancy changes the brain for up to two years”. The Washington Post, 19 Dec. 2016. 

Ross, C.A., Margolis, R.L., Reading, S.A.J, Pletnikov, M., & Coyle, J.T. (2006). Neurobiology of schizophrenia. Neuron, 52, 139-153. 
“What bodily changes can you expect during pregnancy?” Healthline, Healthline, 2017, www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/bodily-changes-during#respiratory-and-metabolic-changes

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