A recent study at the Autonomous University of Barcelona shows that pregnancy not only affects a woman’s body but also literally changes her brain! The gray matter portion of the brain has been shown to shrink noticeably in the brains of women who became pregnant and give birth, compared to men and women who have never given birth. As noted in a recent article by Deseret News, “the parts of the brain that are affected are the ones that govern what’s known as ‘social cognition’ or ‘theory of mind.’ These are the areas that allow us to empathize with others and to understand how their thinking differs from ours.”
For the study, researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona recruited 25 first time mothers, and performed MRI brain scans on them both before conception and after birth, comparing them to scans of 19 first time fathers, 17 men without children, and 20 women without children as detailed in a post on sciencemag.org. Women who had given birth consistently showed a reduction in gray matter after the birth of their child, compared to all the other study participants (including the new dads). This finding would indicate that something very special and specific happens in a woman’s brain when she becomes a mother.
Although losing gray matter might sound like a bad thing, in this case it benefits both the mother and her child. An article on ScienceNews.org details:
…pregnancy sculpts the brains of mothers in a very specific way, making women more responsive to their helpless infants. The regions that shrunk the most — parts of the frontal and temporal cortices as well as the midline — are thought to be involved in taking other people’s mental perspectives. Such selective shrinkage may indicate that these regions become more specialized as a result of pregnancy, an efficiency that may help a new mother better care for a baby.
It’s been said before that motherhood changes women in a way nothing else can, and it’s becoming apparent just how true that statement is. In a fascinating follow up to the initial findings in the study, Health.com notes that:
For the new moms, further imaging tests showed that the brain regions where they lost gray matter overlapped with ones that “lit up” when the women watched images of their own babies. These changes were still visible in scans taken two years after they’d given birth, which was the final follow-up point in the study.
The changes were so distinct that brain scans alone were enough to reveal, with great reliability, whether a woman had been pregnant or not. They were even able to predict mothers’ level of attachment to their babies after they were born.
As science progresses, it’s increasingly clear that a woman’s body is specially designed for childbearing, programmed with the ability to change even on the cognitive level to better care for and protect her children. Although the study discussed above is the first of its kind to show changes in the brain of pregnant women and new mothers, it’s likely that we will continually be amazed in the coming years as we learn more and more about the changes that take place when a woman becomes a mother. It’s plain to see, even from a scientific perspective, that motherhood really is a positive, life changing thing.