The idea of pregnancy brain is something that moms have joked about for years. But it might be more than that, according to neuroimaging research released this week.
The study, conducted at Autonomous University of Barcelona, examined at the brains of 25 mothers before and after pregnancy. Researchers compared those results to the brains of 19 first-time fathers, 17 men without children, and 20 women without children.
While many women will become pregnant at some point, there was little research on how pregnancy impacts the brain. The results were surprising.
Lasting changes of Pregnancy Brain
The changes in the brains of pregnant women and new moms were distinct that researchers could identify them just from their brain scans. Those changes remained for at least two years post-pregnancy, except a partial in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory.
The study showed changes in gray matter, the outer layer of the brain that contains its neurons. The gray matter in certain areas shrunk in size after pregnancy, a phenomenon known as “gray matter pruning.” This pruning means an area of the brain is shedding excess neurons so it can become more specialized. In this case, they were making room to bond with their babies.
Researchers also found that some women had more gray matter pruning than others. Those who pruned the most seemed to have the best bonds with their babies.
“The gray matter volume changes of pregnancy significantly predicted the quality of mother-to-infant attachment and the absence of hostility toward their newborns in the postpartum period,” the authors wrote. Researchers also showed women pictures of several babies and found, not surprisingly, that their brains responded more strongly to photos of their own babies. The bond between mother and child is one of the strongest out there, and the preparations the brain makes for motherhood are its signal that she is getting ready to protect her baby and handle the changes that come with being a parent.