A new study – of a very small group of pregnant women – has found that pregnancy not only changes the brain’s grey matter, the changes can hang in there until babies reach the toddler stages (and it might be nature’s way of helping us focus in on parenting!)
Five year study
The research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience on Monday, refers to a five-year-long study of 25 to 30-something Spanish women. (Most of the participants were recruited from a fertility clinic.)
“Pregnancy involves radical hormone surges and biological adaptations. However, the effects of pregnancy on the human brain are virtually unknown,” the study authors explained.
Beginning pre-pregnancy, scientists took brain scans of the non-pregnant ladies, then scans when they conceived and also scans a few months after giving birth.
These scans were compared to a couple of scans of a similar group of women who had never conceived.
“The results were remarkable: loss of grey matter in several brain areas involved in a process called social cognition or “theory of mind,” the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things,” The New York Times reports.
Amazingly, it was just the pregnant women who had a grey-matter reduction in the social cognition area of their brain’s cortex.
Researchers said that the changes were “so clear” the brain scans alone could show that a woman had been pregnant. Wow.
“The changes were selective for the mothers and highly consistent, correctly classifying all women as having undergone pregnancy or not,” researchers said of the scans.
Experts stress that losing grey matter may (or may not!) be a negative.
“Grey matter volume loss does not necessarily represent a bad thing,” she said. “It can also represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialisation,” Leiden University researcher Elseline Hoekzema said.
The researchers said that most of the changes in the mothers’ brains remained in place for at least two years.
They also concluded that the more grey matter a woman lost during and post-pregnancy, the more emotionally attached they were to their baby. (REALLY not sure how they deduced that one..!)
The team involved think that these brain changes could be part of an adaptive process, designed to make mothers more protective of and focused on their babies.
It will be super interesting to see where this research goes and we’re hoping they broaden their work to include a more diverse and significantly bigger group of women, down the track.
(The study authors did suggest that a larger group should be studied in future, to clarify the findings.)