Pregnancy causes dramatic changes in the brain, study confirms

Women who were pregnant saw gray matter loss and changes to the “default mode network,” a group of brain areas that are most active when the mind is wandering.

According to a recent study, pregnancy causes profound changes in the brain, including modifications to the gray matter and areas responsible for self-perception.

According to the researchers’ findings, these neural alterations may help mother and child bond and may contribute to the identity transformation that many women experience when they become moms.

The study’s findings, which were reported Nov. 22 in the journal Nature Communications, “offer vital insights into the impact of becoming a mother on the human brain and hint to dramatic changes in brain structure and function” during pregnancy (opens in new tab).
According to the study’s authors from Amsterdam University Medical Center, these modifications “may offer adaptive benefits for a mother’s gestational and maternal conduct and the foundation of the new mother-child connection.”

The same group of researchers discovered in a previous study of Spanish pregnant women that the participants had less gray matter in their brains and that this loss persisted for up to two years after the women gave birth. The latest study, carried out in the Netherlands, built on previous studies by looking at other brain regions and determining if the alterations were related to certain behaviors and measurements of the mother-infant relationship.

They monitored 80 Dutch women who had never given birth before and were not pregnant at the beginning of the trial. 40 of the women became pregnant during the course of the research. The brains of all the participants were examined at the beginning of the trial, as well as at different intervals subsequently, including (for those who became pregnant) soon after delivery and one year postpartum.

Once more, the scientists discovered that after giving birth, pregnant women lost gray matter. Replicating the result from their earlier study further demonstrates that these findings are trustworthy and are experienced by people in many nations, according to the authors. These gray matter reductions may indicate a “fine-tuning” of the brain that may be advantageous in caring for a new infant, scientists said, rather than necessarily being harmful.

It’s interesting to note that nesting practices, like as tidying the home or setting up the nursery in preparation for the baby, have been connected to gray matter loss.

The default mode network, a set of brain areas that are most active when a person isn’t performing a particular activity, was discovered to have changed in the pregnant women, according to the research. According to the authors, this network is active when you let your thoughts to wander and is assumed to be engaged in social processes like empathy as well as self-reflection and autobiographical memory.

In addition, compared to women with lesser changes, women with larger changes in the default mode network reported experiencing a stronger link with their child (as determined by a study of mother-infant bonding) and enjoying playing with their child more. There were less “bonding deficits,” such as sentiments of resentment or contempt toward the infant, among women who had larger default-mode network modifications. More precisely, the higher the increases in activity in the default mode network were, the more probable it was for women to distinguish the fetus from themselves and regard the fetus as a person. The brain alterations were also connected to measures of attachment to the fetus.
The authors theorized that the neurological foundation of the self may be altered by modifications to the default mode network during pregnancy, “contributing to the transition in a woman’s identity and concentration that commonly accompanies new parenthood.”

Finally, the researchers looked into the potential causes of these mental shifts. Their findings suggest that hormones are a likely offender. The researchers discovered that women with higher levels of estrogen, particularly during the third trimester of pregnancy, showed bigger brain alterations than those without such a marked surge in estrogen, using urine samples gathered at ten stages during the study. Contrarily, the brain alterations were not associated with variables like sleep, stress levels, or the method of delivery.

The researchers urged for more, bigger studies to look into these issues since they couldn’t completely rule out the potential that other, unmeasured factors, such as exercise, diet, and genetic markers, may also be contributing to these changes in the brain.

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