My sister has been pregnant three different times now—and every single time, my dad has referred to her as “crazy.” Not for getting pregnant, but for how she acts when she’s pregnant: she’s irritable, scatterbrained, and absentminded. It’s now routine for him to give her a hard time and her to fire back with, “I’m pregnant, I can’t help it!” And then he laughs and continues to question her sanity.
As it turns out, new research reveals that these soon-to-be mothers aren’t crazy after all— “baby brain” is real. This study, which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that pregnant woman do experience significant changes in brain function such as increased forgetfulness, inattention, and mental “fogginess.” So my sister was right about the cognitive changes caused by her pregnancies.
To reach these findings, the group of researchers analyzed 20 different studies that explored the relationship between pregnancy and changes in cognitive performance. They then picked apart the differences and went on to evaluate the brain functioning of 709 pregnant women as well as 521 non-pregnant women. Upon doing so, the team discovered that when pregnant women are compared to non-pregnant women—in terms of memory and executive functioning—the former display poorer performance.
The team tested these women at multiple points throughout their pregnancies and observed the decline to begin around the first trimester and then level-out through the remainder of the pregnancy. Still, Sasha Davies, PhD candidate from Deakin University, says it’s important to note that while there were apparent cognitive differences between the pregnant and non-pregnant women, the pregnant women were still functioning and performing in a normal range—just on the lower end of it, especially when it came to memory.
Davies says that while pregnant women may take notice in these slightly lower levels, there isn’t anything to worry about—as the effects aren’t likely to affect their everyday lives. Instead, they may have to put a little more effort into completing what were once mundane tasks. Additionally, their loved ones may take notice of these delays; still, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
This study focused on exploring if not why women really experience the phenomenon known as “baby brain.” Davies pointed out another study, however, that analyzed certain areas of their brain known to play a role in processing social information, such as deciphering a baby’s facial expressions and establishing healthy bonding with the baby. This research found that there were, indeed, reductions in grey matter in these brain regions of pregnant women.
According to Davies, this study’s findings show that “baby brain” is a significant adaptive phenomenon that allow women to prepare for their new role as mom. Furthermore, this study showed that losses of great matter in the hippocampus—responsible for memory function—are restored, it just takes a couple years after the child’s birth. This further supports the former study’s finding that the pregnant women’s cognitive declines are not permanent.
Davies says there’s still a lot to uncover: “First, postpartum measures of cognitive functioning are frequently not included when exploring cognition and pregnancy. This means it’s unclear whether the changes seen during pregnancy extend into early parenthood and, if so how long they might last. Second, the underlying mechanisms of this relationship are still open to speculation. Given women experience huge hormonal shifts during pregnancy, it’s likely increases in hormones estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin play an important role in facilitating these cognitive changes.”
She goes on to list other factors that may contribute to a pregnant woman’s decline in cognitive functioning. These include disrupted sleep patterns, mood changes, increased stress levels, and morning sickness—all of which are common for pregnant women to experience. “After all, pregnancy is a time of massive physical, psychological, and social change, so it isn’t surprising this is distracting,” Davies concludes.
Sasha Davies. (2018, January 15). New study finds ‘baby brain’ is real, but we’re still not sure what causes it. The Conversation. Retrieved on January 15, 2018 from https://theconversation.com/new-study-finds-baby-brain-is-real-but-were-still-not-sure-what-causes-it-89916