Study says preg­nancy changes brain.

The Times-Tribune - - Front Page - BY MAL­COLM RITTER

NEW YORK — Preg­nancy af­fects not only a woman’s body: It changes parts of her brain too, a new study says.

When re­searchers com­pared brain scans of women be­fore and af­ter preg­nancy, they spot­ted some dif­fer­ences in 11 lo­ca­tions. They also found hints that the al­ter­ations help women pre­pare for moth­er­hood.

For ex­am­ple, they might help a mother un­der­stand the needs of her in­fant, Else­line Hoekzema, a study au­thor at Lei­den Univer­sity in the Nether­lands, ex­plained via email.

The women were also given mem­ory tests, and they showed no signs of de­cline.

Dr. Hoekzema, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, be­gan work­ing on the study while at the Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity of Barcelona in Spain. She and col­leagues present the re­sults in a pa­per re­leased Mon­day by the jour­nal Na­ture Neu­ro­science.

The study in­cludes data on 25 Span­ish women scanned be­fore and af­ter their first preg­nan­cies, along with 20 women who didn’t get preg­nant dur­ing the study. The brain changes in the preg­nancy group emerged from com­par­isons of those two groups.

The re­sults were con­sis­tent: A com­puter pro­gram could tell which women had got­ten preg­nant just by look­ing at re­sults of the MRI scans.

And the changes, first doc­u­mented an av­er­age of 10 weeks af­ter giv­ing birth, were mostly still present two years af­ter child­birth. That’s based on fol­low-up with 11 study par­tic­i­pants.

Fur­ther work showed they’re a moth­er­hood thing: No brain changes were seen in first-time fa­thers.

Based on prior re­search find­ings, the re­searchers think the brain changes hap­pened dur­ing preg­nancy rather than af­ter child­birth.

What’s go­ing on? Dr. Hoekzema and col­leagues think the dif­fer­ences re­sult from sex hor­mones that flood the brain of a preg­nant woman. In the 11 places, the MRI data in­di­cate re­duc­tions in vol­ume of the brain’s gray mat­ter, but it’s not clear what that means. For ex­am­ple, it could re­flect loss of brain cells or a prun­ing of the places where brain cells com­mu­ni­cate, called synapses.

Los­ing some synapses is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. It hap­pens dur­ing a hor­monal surge in ado­les­cence, pro­duc­ing more spe­cial­ized and ef­fi­cient brain cir­cuits. The re­searchers sus­pect that could be hap­pen­ing in the preg­nant women.

Some study re­sults hint that such up­grades may pre­pare a woman for moth­er­hood. One anal­y­sis linked brain changes to how strongly a woman felt emo­tion­ally at­tached to her in­fant. And when women viewed pic­tures of their ba­bies, sev­eral brain re­gions that re­acted the most were ones that showed preg­nancy-re­lated change.

In ad­di­tion, the af­fected brain ar­eas over­lapped with cir­cuitry that’s in­volved in fig­ur­ing out what an­other per­son is think­ing and feel­ing. That’s a handy abil­ity for a mother tend­ing to an in­fant.

The idea of synapses be­ing pruned in preg­nancy makes a lot of sense, com­mented Bruce McEwen of Rock­e­feller Univer­sity in New York, who stud­ies hor­monal ef­fects on the brain but didn’t par­tic­i­pate in what he called a ter­rific study.

“The brain is be­ing shaped all the time,” he said, and “sex hor­mones are part of the whole or­ches­tra of pro­cesses that change the brain struc­turally.”


A mother holds her newborn baby at a hos­pi­tal in Cor­pus Christi, Texas. A study re­leased Mon­day shows preg­nancy af­fects not only a woman’s body: it also changes parts of her brain struc­ture.

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