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Pregnancy has 'long-lasting' effect on women's brain structure

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Pregnancy can alter the structure of women’s brains, improving the mother’s ability to protect and nurture her child, according to new research.

The study carried out by researchers from the UAB (The Autonomous University of Barcelona) and Leiden University show that the brain changes can last for up to two years after women give birth.

The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brains of women before and after their first pregnancy and found significant reductions in grey matter in regions linked with social interactions.

However researchers did not observe any changes in memory or other cognitive functions during the pregnancies and believe the loss of grey matter does not imply any cognitive deficits, but rather “the findings point to an adaptive process related to the benefits of better detecting the needs of the child, such as identifying the newborn's emotional state. Moreover, they provide primary clues regarding the neural basis of motherhood, perinatal mental health and brain plasticity in general”, said Oscar Vilarroya from the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit of the Department of Psychiatry and Legal Medicine at the UAB.

Elseline Hoekzema, co-lead author from Leiden University, believes the “changes may reflect, at least in part, a mechanism of synaptic pruning, which also takes place in adolescence, where weak synapses are eliminated giving way to more efficient and specialized neural networks”.

She added that “these changes concern brain areas associated with functions necessary to manage the challenges of motherhood”.

The study took into account variations in both women who had undergone fertility treatments and women who had become pregnant naturally, and the reductions in grey matter were practically identical in both groups.

The research was published in Nature Neuroscience.


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