Summary: Study reports significant reduction in gray matter volume in brain regions associated with social cognition for up to two years following birth.
Researchers explore the impact of pregnancy on the structure of the human brain.
Pregnancy involves radical hormone surges and biological adaptations, but the effects on the brain are still unknown. In this study a team of researchers compared the structure of the brain of women before and after their first pregnancy. This is the first research to show that pregnancy involves long-lasting changes – at least for two years post-partum – in the morphology of a woman’s brain.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists have been able to show that the brains of women who have undergone a first pregnancy present significant reductions in grey matter in regions associated with social cognition.
The researchers believe that such changes correspond to an adaptive process of functional specialization towards motherhood. “These 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”, says Elseline Hoekzema, co-lead author of the article.
According to Erika Barba, the other co-lead author, “these changes concern brain areas associated with functions necessary to manage the challenges of motherhood”.
In fact, researchers found that the areas with grey matter reductions overlapped with brain regions activated during a functional neuroimaging session in which the mothers of the study watched images of their own babies.
In order to conduct the study, researchers compared magnetic resonance images of 25 first-time mothers before and after their pregnancy, of 19 male partners, and of a control group formed by 20 women who were not and had never been pregnant and 17 male partners. They gathered information about the participants during five years and four months.
The results of the research directed by Òscar Vilarroya and Susanna Carmona demonstrated a symmetrical reduction in the volume of grey matter in the medial frontal and posterior cortex line, as well as in specific sections of, mainly, prefrontal and temporal cortex in pregnant women. “These areas correspond to a great extent with a network associated with processes involved in social cognition and self-focused processing”, indicates Susanna Carmona.
The analyses of the study determine with great reliability whether any woman from the study had been pregnant depending on the changes in the brain structure. They were even able to predict the mother’s attachment to her baby in the postpartum period based on these brain changes.
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.
Researchers did not observe any changes in memory or other cognitive functions during the pregnancies and therefore believe that 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”, says Oscar Vilarroya.
About this neuroscience research article
Elseline Hoekzema (researcher at the UAB at the time of the study, but currently working at Leiden University) and Erika Barba-Müller (UAB) are the lead authors of the article published in Nature Neuroscience.
The study was directed by Òscar Vilarroya, from the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit of the Department of Psychiatry and Legal Medicine at the UAB, and coordinator of the research group Neuroimaging of Mental Disorders at the IMIM Foundation, and co-directed by Susana Carmona [researcher at the UAB at the time of the study and now at the University Carlos III, Madrid, and affiliated to the CIBER of Mental Health (CIBERSAM)].
Also collaborating in the research were Cristina Pozzobon, Florencio Lucco and Agustín Ballesteros (Valencian Infertility Institute, IVI); Marisol Picado (Hospital Clínic); Eveline A. Crone (Leiden University); David García-García and Manuel Desco (University Carlos III and Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Gregorio Marañón, Madrid); and Juan Carlos Soliva and Adolf Tobeña (UAB).
Source: Oscar Vilarroya – UAB Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Oscar Vilarroya. Original Research: Abstract for “Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure” by Elseline Hoekzema, Erika Barba-Müller, Cristina Pozzobon, Marisol Picado, Florencio Lucco, David García-García, Juan Carlos Soliva, Adolf Tobeña, Manuel Desco, Eveline A Crone, Agustín Ballesteros, Susanna Carmona & Oscar Vilarroya in Nature Neuroscience. Published online December 19 2016 doi:10.1038/nn.4458
Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]UAB “Baby Brain: Pregnancy Brain Changes Last 2 Years After Birth .” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 19 December 2016. <https://neurosciencenews.com/structural-brain-change-pregnancy-5774/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]UAB (2016, December 19). Baby Brain: Pregnancy Brain Changes Last 2 Years After Birth . NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved December 19, 2016 from https://neurosciencenews.com/structural-brain-change-pregnancy-5774/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]UAB “Baby Brain: Pregnancy Brain Changes Last 2 Years After Birth .” https://neurosciencenews.com/structural-brain-change-pregnancy-5774/ (accessed December 19, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]
New learning while consolidating memory during sleep is actively blocked by a protein synthesis dependent process
Pregnancy involves radical hormone surges and biological adaptations. However, the effects of pregnancy on the human brain are virtually unknown. Here we show, using a prospective (‘pre’-‘post’ pregnancy) study involving first-time mothers and fathers and nulliparous control groups, that pregnancy renders substantial changes in brain structure, primarily reductions in gray matter (GM) volume in regions subserving social cognition. The changes were selective for the mothers and highly consistent, correctly classifying all women as having undergone pregnancy or not in-between sessions. Interestingly, the volume reductions showed a substantial overlap with brain regions responding to the women’s babies postpartum. Furthermore, the GM volume changes of pregnancy predicted measures of postpartum maternal attachment, suggestive of an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood. Another follow-up session showed that the GM reductions endured for at least 2 years post-pregnancy. Our data provide the first evidence that pregnancy confers long-lasting changes in a woman’s brain.
“Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure” by Elseline Hoekzema, Erika Barba-Müller, Cristina Pozzobon, Marisol Picado, Florencio Lucco, David García-García, Juan Carlos Soliva, Adolf Tobeña, Manuel Desco, Eveline A Crone, Agustín Ballesteros, Susanna Carmona & Oscar Vilarroya in Nature Neuroscience. Published online December 19 2016 doi:10.1038/nn.4458