How Pregnancy Changes the Brain: Does Pregnancy Brain Have Negative Effects Long Term?

 

She took her pregnancy test and it was confirmed, she was going to bring a new life into this world. What an exciting time in a mother’s life when she discovers she is pregnant, the bliss fills the life of her loved ones, and from that day onwards, she lives a life of not only a woman or a wife but also takes up a new role of a mother. It is natural to have mixed feeling when a woman realizes she is pregnant, especially if she is experiencing it for the first time. She has to educate herself on many aspects of the new change, the do’s and the don’ts and, most importantly, the changes her body is going to go through. As science and technology have progressed, the awareness that pregnancy has the ability to alter a woman’s life in terms of the hormonal, physiological and emotional state of the body is much talked about, and everyday new studies are being contributed to the understanding of these changes. But did you know besides the established facts of gaining weight, hormonal changes, change in taste buds, sometimes sore feet and elevated levels of blood pressure and sugar levels,there is a strong connection between pregnancy and the brain? Let’s get educated on how pregnancy changes the brain!

How pregnancy changes the  brain: The body during pregnancy

HOW PREGNANCY CHANGES THE BRAIN

How pregnancy changes the brain

 

The development in a pregnant female’s body is a week by week progression and as they cross each trimester (a period of three months), the changes are more evident and noticeable. What are the changes that occur? Why do these changes happen? Are the changes reversible?

Many scholars and organizations are advocates to answer basic and complex questions that may arise during pregnancy for mothers to be. The office on Women’s Health, U.S Department of Health and Human services (OWH) is one such organization that is dedicated to educating women around U.S towards various female health related topics such as cancer, birth control, pregnancy and much more. According to OWH, the following basic information on stages of pregnancy is significant for women,

  • First Trimester (week 1 to week 12) a female’s body goes through a major hormonal change which further affects each and every organ in their body. Furthermore, the hormonal change is responsible for the tiredness, headaches,  mood swings, and food cravings.
  • Second Trimester( week 13 to week 18) observes changes such as body aches, darkening of the skin around the nipples, itching on the abdomen, sore feet and palms, stretch marks and weight gain. These changes may vary from person to person.
  • Third Trimester (week 20 to week 40), the mother can feel the baby move, but many of the discomforts of the second-trimester increase and as the baby grows, the pressure on the mother’s bladder is increased adding to the uneasiness.

As stated above, the changes mentioned (along with many others) are due to the hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy. Elevated levels of Estrogen and Progesterone (main pregnancy hormones) are primarily responsible for the variations in a female body at the time of pregnancy both externally and internally.

How pregnancy changes the brain: Recent studies

HOW PREGNANCY CHANGES THE BRAIN

How pregnancy changes the brain

Now that we have a basic idea of how the body changes during pregnancy, let’s try to understand how pregnancy changes the brain.

In an article published by Lisa Galea 2014 “Mother’s Day Science: From ‘Baby Brain’ to Cognitive Boost”  it was stated there are studies that provide evidence yielding that a female brain shrinks between 4 to 8 percent during pregnancy which causes a mother to be forgetful which is also called as “baby brain” or “pregnancy brain”. In addition, Galea also stresses that the changes in the brain occur due to the elevated levels of progesterone and estrogen hormones which further results in memory impairments in a pregnant female.

In a more recent study produced in 2016, Hoekzema and colleagues published a study “Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure that focused on the brain change that occurs during pregnancy. The pre and post pregnancy MRI testing of 25 first-time mothers and fathers study highlighted the fact that pregnancy alters the brain structure of the mother substantially. The MRI reports suggested that Gray Matter(GM) volume was reduced in a few areas. However, this reduction was not noticed in fathers and women who did not experience childbirth. Also, the brain changes were noticed 2 years post pregnancy, confirming long lasting effects of pregnancy on the brain.

How pregnancy changes the brain: What affects does this cause?

The results of the Hoekzema ( 2016) study concluded with evidence that gray matter is altered during pregnancy. The study of the brain has been a subject of study for many neuroscientists and other in related fields. Many studies have suggested that the gray matter is responsible for emotions, sensory perception, decision making, cognition, speech, self-control, and memory. Modifications in the gray matter might limit a mother’s social cognition skills but it prepares her with adaptive methods during the motherhood transition. The study also concentrated on the evidence that the depletion in gray matter volume overlaps the part of the brain that is actually responsible for a mother being able to recognize her baby’s needs after the baby is born. In addition, the study also provided us with significant evidence reflecting the association between the quality of mother and infant attachment is predicted due to the brain change that occurs during pregnancy.

The process of childbirth is the most beautiful experience that a woman goes through and what is more amazing is to learn the changes her body goes through prior and post pregnancy. Researchers and neuroscientists are working to investigate more about how pregnancy changes the brain and body. As studies are being published, there are other questions that may arise, like “would brain change have a negative effect on a woman if she gets pregnant more than once?”  However, with the studies published, we can now confidently say that the changes that occur in a female’s brain due to the reduction in the gray matter are a positive change for both the mother and the child.

Do you have any questions or ideas? Leave a comment below! 🙂

Puja is a 2nd year Child and Human Developmental Psychology student at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City. She also has a B.A in Speech and Language Sciences and has gained experience within the field from London, U.K.
Puja is very passionate about making a difference and spreading the awareness to educate the general public. Her goal is to reach out to as many people as she can, she strongly believes that education has the ability to cause a positive ripple effect.