What ‘Mommy Brain’ Really Is

Many new mothers experience the foggy thinking and bouts of forgetfulness commonly known by such cutesy and patronizing terms as “mommy brain,” “baby brain,” “pregnancy brain” or “momnesia.”

During pregnancy, research has shown, the human brain undergoes an extraordinary period of reorganization—known as neuroplasticity.

The plasticity of women’s brains during pregnancy is similar to during adolescence, Clare Mccormack, a research assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, and her colleagues said. Both involve “hormonally mediated shifts in attention, motivation, cognition and behavior necessary for adaptation to the new demands of life,” they wrote in the commentary.

“It makes sense that brains are really, really plastic during that time because there’s so many new things we need to learn [in order] to live with this wonderful creature,” said Liisa Galea, a neuroscientist who leads the Women’s Health Research Cluster at the University of British Columbia.

For example, MRIs show that gray matter (the part of the brain that processes information) volume is reduced after pregnancy in certain areas of women’s brains and is increased in others. The areas of the brain where reduction occurs correspond to the areas involved in decoding mental states in ourselves and others, prompting researchers to theorize that this makes these areas more efficient. Studies show that mothers with these brain changes are more attached and attuned to their infants.

“Just because we’re pruning down doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s actually good because we’re wiring new and different connections,” said Galea. “Because we have to learn about those infant cries. We have to learn how to juggle more things. We have to be less selfish.”

Although as many as 80 percent of pregnant women have said they experience cognitive problems when going about their daily lives, lab research has shown only minor negative effects on some areas of cognition. Furthermore, Galea noted, those results seem to be affected by a number of factors, including the trimester of the pregnancy, the sex of the baby and how many children the woman has given birth to.

Of course, that memory deficits in a lab setting are not as severe as women say they suffer in real life could simply be due to the fact that there are no interruptions or stresses—or children—in a lab. And it’s also possible that the forgetfulness some women experience is related more to stress and lack of sleep than to changes in their brains.

Galea said these women should not be overly concerned about their forgetfulness because research shows that a new mother’s memory gradually improves. Studies also suggest that, in middle age, women who have given birth have better memories than women who have not.

What’s really important, she and Mccormack agree, is to figure out how this plasticity helps a woman adapt to motherhood. This could lead to targeted treatment for the 1 in 5 women who experience postpartum depression, as well as for those who suffer from other perinatal mood or anxiety disorders.

While mommy brain can be disorienting and frustrating, some parents do see the positive adaptations that research is uncovering, Mccormack said. Anecdotally, they have told her that they revel in new expertise, such as improved multitasking and stress endurance, and the almost magical ability to understand what an infant needs.





The World Tribune