Your Brain Changes with Motherhood

June 30, 2020
Becoming a mother involves physical and emotional changes, but also structural changes. Today we'll tell you how your brain changes with motherhood.

Motherhood is a life-changing event. It leads to endless physical and emotional changes that you can perceive to a greater or lesser extent from the very beginning of a pregnancy. But did you know your brain also changes with motherhood?

In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers observed that the brain begins restructuring during gestation. Not only that, but they noticed it continues to change throughout the two years post-delivery, at least. Continue reading to find out more about it.

Your brain changes with motherhood

A person holding a brain.
The plasticity of a mother’s brain has to do with evolutionary adaptation.

A research team from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona performed brain MRI scans of pregnant women. They did them during and after the pregnancy and discovered a reduction in the volume of gray matter. Particularly in those regions associated with social relations.

They detected this decrease in all the pregnant women they studied. The change occurred symmetrically in the gray matter volume in the prefrontal and temporal cortex sections. Also in the cortical midline. Neurologists associate these areas with social processes.

After delivery, they performed new scans while the mothers looked at photos of their children. They noticed the same effect. When they conducted studies on future parents, there were no changes in the brain. Therefore, they concluded that said brain modifications are strictly female.

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The brain changes with motherhood

The research found no difference between women who conceived naturally or through fertility treatments. The gray matter reductions were similar in both instances.

Let’s see next how this decrease affects or modifies the actions of a new mother:

  • They found no changes in memory or other intellectual functions
  • Gray matter loss has nothing to do with cognitive deficit
  • The mother’s brain plasticity has an evolutionary end; this is so a new mother can respond more efficiently to her baby’s needs
  • Thanks to this reduction in gray matter, the mother is more sensitive to the emotional state of her child and can easily detect possible threats

“We believe the reduction is due to a process similar to synaptic pruning. It takes place during adolescence, where weak synapses are removed to favor more mature and efficient mental processing,” concluded Susanna Carmona, one of the researchers.

Motherhood and memory

A woman with a sticky note on her forehead.
Some studies point to a possible decrease in memory when a woman becomes a mother.

The study above found no evidence of decreased memory in new mothers. However, research in 2010 suggested that hormonal changes could have a certain influence on cognition.

Among their conclusions, the specialists found that the brain adaptation of a new mother could lead to a decrease in her memory performance.

Furthermore, an investigation carried out in Australia compared the memory response of pregnant and non-pregnant women. In the results, they observed significant deterioration in the naturalistic measure of memory.

Based on these two studies, a woman’s brain changes when she becomes a mother. This plasticity allows them to adapt to new circumstances and develop a greater empathic response. This is because they need it to be able to properly care for their baby, even though it may possibly affect their memory.

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Conclusions

A woman’s brain changes when she becomes a mother, there’s no doubt about that. However, there isn’t conclusive data to determine exactly how these brain changes affect their daily actions. In summary, scientists believe that:

  • It would increase their capacity for empathy to be able to understand their child
  • Their ability to recognize potential threats and dangers increases
  • However, their memory may decrease
  • The zones associated with love light up in their brain in order to generate a symbiotic relationship that permits the proper development and protection of a child during their first years of life

Motherhood changes a woman in so many ways. Not only does it leave a mark on their bodies, but it also seems to modify their brains. Of course, it happens so that they can better respond to the needs of their children.

The data isn’t 100% conclusive and there needs to be further research on this matter. But it certainly seems that a woman’s brain changes with motherhood.

  • Elseline Hoekzema, Erika Barba-Müller, Cristina Pozzobon, Marisol Picado, Florencio Lucco, David García-García, Juan Carlos Soliva, Adolf Tobeña, Manuel Desco, Eveline Crone, Agustín Ballesteros, Susanna Carmona, Oscar Vilarroya. Pregnancy involves long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1038/nn.4458
  • Scientific American. (2016). Pregnancy Causes Lasting Changes in a Woman’s Brain. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pregnancy-causes-lasting-changes-in-a-womans-brain/
  • ScienceDirect. (2010). Giving birth to a new brain: Hormone exposures of pregnancy influence human memory. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453010000314
    Rendell, P. G., & Henry, J. D. (2008). Prospective-memory functioning is affected during pregnancy and postpartum. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 30(8), 913–919. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803390701874379
  • Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García-García, D., … Vilarroya, O. (2016). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience, 20, 287. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4458