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Pregnancy Changes Brain Structure in Mothers

February 01, 2017
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It's obvious that pregnancy causes quite a few physical changes. But what may not be as obvious are the changes that occur in a mother's brain. According to a recent study published in the journal, Natural Neuroscience, pregnancy alters the size and structure of brain regions related to emotional intelligence, including understanding thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. Before conceiving, 25 women who would be first-time mothers and 19 of their male partners were given high resolution MRI brain scans, as well as a control group of 20 women and their male partners who had never given birth. After giving birth, all 25 women and the 19 male partners were re-scanned. In the second scan, researchers observed a clear loss of gray matter in various regions of the brain, including the prefrontal and temporal cortex: areas related to a number of functions from memory to depression. However, how to interpret this finding wasn't quite clear. According to senior brain scientist and co-lead author of the study, Elseline Hoekzema "Loss of volume does not necessarily translate to loss of function ... Sometimes less is more." She went on to explain that the findings could "represent a fine-tuning of synapses into more efficient neural networks." Teens undergo a similar refining of synapses. During adolescence, weaker brain connections are eliminated to create a more efficient neural network. While gray matter decreases, those with a mature neural network actually display increased brain activity in these refined regions. Dr. Kim Yonkers, a professor in psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the new study, suggests these changes may help women forget the pain or difficulty of pregnancy and childbirth During the study, researchers found that those with the greatest overall brain change scored higher than others on the strength of their maternal bonds as well. What's more, researchers found that many of these changes lasted two years after giving birth. Unfortunately, the team followed the humans participants for two years only. While similar changes in rodents are documented to last until old age, it is unclear whether or not these changes stretch beyond two years in humans. "The significance of these changes and the duration of these changes is yet to be determined," said Dr. Rodney L. Wright, associate professor of clinical obstetrics & gynecology and women's health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System who was not involved in the study. While this study leaves many questions unanswered, it illuminates possibilities for future medical treatments. For now, we'll have to wait and see how this story develops.    
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