Pregnancy can alter a woman’s brain

European researchers have found that being pregnant changes the make up of the brain, allowing new mothers to bond with their baby

Pregnancy alters a woman’s brain for at least two years after childbirth, according to new research. It reduces grey matter, allowing mum to bond with her baby and prepare for the demands of motherhood. We typically use grey matter for muscle control and sensory perception, such as memory, emotions and decision-making.

Scientists at Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain, and Leiden University, Netherlands, examined brain scans of 25 first-time mums before they became pregnant, soon after they gave birth and two years later. They then compared these results with the scans of 19 first-time fathers, 17 men without children and 20 women who had never given birth. There were no changes in the grey matter of first-time fathers, but the scale of brain changes in new mums was akin to those seen during adolescence.

The reduction of grey matter occurred in areas of the brain involved in social interactions used for attributing thoughts and feeling to other people; otherwise known as ‘theory of mind’ tasks. This reduction gives new mothers a number of advantages; it helps them identify their baby’s needs, be more aware of potential social threats and become more attached to their little one. Perhaps surprisingly, the research revealed no deterioration in memory during or after pregnancy, appearing to debunk the ‘mummy brain’ myth that many attribute to forgetfulness.

Elseline Hoekzema, study author and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said; “We can speculate that the volume reductions observed in pregnancy represent a process of specialisation or further maturation of this Theory of Mind network that, in some way, serves an adaptive purpose for pending motherhood.”

In one task, mothers were shown pictures of babies, including their own child, whilst their brain activity was monitored. Parts of the brain that had experienced a reduction in grey matter lit up when viewing an image of their baby, whereas there was no reaction to the other faces.