Pregnancy & the brain - news reports
About these topic collections
I’ve been reporting on memory research for over ten years and these topic pages are simply collections of all the news items I have made on a particular topic. They do not pretend to be in any way exhaustive! I cover far too many areas within memory to come anywhere approaching that. What I aim to do is provide breadth, rather than depth. Outside my own area of cognitive psychology, it is difficult to know how much weight to give to any study (I urge you to read my blog post on what constitutes scientific evidence). That (among other reasons) is why my approach in my news reporting is based predominantly on replication and consistency. It's about the aggregate. So here is the aggregate of those reports I have at one point considered of sufficient interest to discuss. If you know of any research you would like to add to the collection, feel free to write about it in a comment (please provide a reference).
The issue of “mommy brain” is a complex one. Inconsistent research results make it clear that there is no simple answer to the question of whether or not pregnancy and infant care change women’s brains. But a new study adds to the picture.
Brain scans of 19 women two to four weeks and three to four months after they gave birth showed that grey matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in the midbrain (amygdala, substantia nigra, hypothalamus), prefrontal cortex, and parietal lobe. These areas are involved in motivation and reward, emotion regulation, planning, and sensory perception.
Mothers who were most enthusiastic about their babies were significantly more likely to show this increase in the midbrain regions. The authors speculated that the “maternal instinct” might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building. Interestingly, while the brain’s reward regions don’t usually change as a result of learning, one experience that does have this effect is that of addiction.
While the reasons may have to do with genes, personality traits, infant behavior, or present circumstances, previous research has found that mothers who had more nurturing in their childhood had more gray matter in those brain regions involved in empathy and reading faces, which also correlated with the degree of activation in those regions when their baby cried.
A larger study is of course needed to confirm these findings.
 The plasticity of human maternal brain: Longitudinal changes in brain anatomy during the early postpartum period.. Behavioral Neuroscience. 124(5), 695 - 700.(2010).
Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Review supports mild memory impairment in pregnancy
A review of 14 studies testing the memory performances of more than 1,000 pregnant women, mothers and non-pregnant women, has found that pregnant women performed significantly worse on some, but not all aspects of the test. The hardest tests for the pregnant women were those that involved new or demanding tasks. Regular, well-practiced memory tasks were unlikely to be affected. The impairment wasn’t large — comparable to the modest deficits you'd find when comparing healthy 20-year-olds with healthy 60-year-olds. However, the impairment was sometimes still evident a year after birth (none looked beyond that point).
 A review of the impact of pregnancy on memory function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 29(8), 793 - 793.(2007).
Effect of pregnancy on cognition depends on fetal gender
An intriguing new study may shed light on the conflicting results reported regarding the effect of pregnancy on cognition. The study, which tracked women throughout pregnancy through to postnatal resumption of menstruation, found that there was a significant effect of the sex of the baby on working memory and spatial ability. Women pregnant with boys consistently outperformed women pregnant with girls on these tests.
 Selective and persistent effect of foetal sex on cognition in pregnant women. Neuroreport. 16(7), 779 - 782.(2005).
No support for idea that pregnancy affects memory and concentration
A study of pregnant women found many agreed with the popular view that pregnancy affects your memory. However, mental tests during pregnancy and after the birth found no difference between the performance of women who were pregnant and those who were not. It was possible that the affects are too mild to be picked up by the tests, or that the fatigue commonly experienced by women during pregnancy and early motherhood leads women to believe that their memory and concentration are affected.
The research was presented at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Bournemouth.