The Times-Tribune

THINK LIKE A MOM

Study says pregnancy changes brain.

- 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.”

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 ?? MICHAEL ZAMORA / CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES VIA AP ?? 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.
MICHAEL ZAMORA / CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES VIA AP 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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