Pregnancy Causes Brain Structural Changes, says New Study

Pregnancy causes long-term brain structural changes, says a new study published in Nature Neuroscience.

Pregnancy comes with its fair share of changes: no woman who has ever been pregnant will testify to the opposite. A new study extends this general principle to much beyond what our eyes can see—to the inside of the brain. The organ in question undergoes a number of modifications in its structure as a result of pregnancy, says a team of scientists from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. No need to be alarmed, thankfully! These changes are more likely beneficial in nature as the researchers suggest that they might be enhancing the mother’s potential to better interact and protect her child.

The team wanted to understand the effects of pregnancy on the brain. They, thus, compared the brain structure of a group of women before and after their first pregnancy. Their findings show regions of the brain involved in social cognition with lesser grey matter than prior to the first pregnancy, a change whereby synapses are eliminated to accommodate for “more efficient and specialized neural networks” (in this case, motherhood), as explains co-lead author Elseline Hoekzema.

The structural change was in the form of a symmetrical decrease in grey matter volume situated in the medial frontal and posterior cortex line, and in specific regions of the prefrontal and temporal cortex.

“These areas correspond to a great extent with a network associated with processes involved in social cognition and self-focused processing,” says author Susanna Carmona.

According to the researchers, this constitutes an adaptation to functional specialisation—to motherhood. Co-lead author Erika Barba explains that the alterations entail those areas of the brain that have been linked with “functions necessary to manage the challenges of motherhood”. Such was deduced from observing an overlapping of the brain regions with reduced grey matter with brain areas that were activated when the mothers viewed images of their respective babies.

Furthermore, the results of the study—the brain structural changes—could be reliably used to gauge whether the women participants had been pregnant. They could also indicate the level of attachment a mother had to her child during the postpartum period.

Now, can the loss of grey matter be harmful? The researchers found no memory deficit or cognitive problem. Rather, the ‘loss’ is no real loss.

“The findings point to an adaptive process related to the benefits of better detecting the needs of the child, such as identifying the newborn’s emotional state. Moreover, they provide primary clues regarding the neural basis of motherhood, perinatal mental health and brain plasticity in general,” says one of the researchers, Oscar Vilarroya.

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