Motherhood—and parenthood in general—create obvious lifestyle changes. But did you know that motherhood can also fundamentally change your brain?
Various studies suggest that motherhood might create new synaptic connections, enhance learning, and even improve memory abilities.
Why pregnancy might stimulate memory
Prior research has found that certain female hormones such as oestradiol and progesterone significantly increase the number of dendritic spines in the brain. Dendrites are what neurons use to reach out and connect with each other—so the more dendrites, the higher possibility of neural connections. Because these dendrite-enriching female hormones surge and stay high during pregnancy, researchers from the University of Richmond hoped to find significant differences in the brains of maternal rats.
In this 1999 study from Nature magazine, maternal rats were almost three times as fast at navigating to the food reward when put through a maze test. Maternal rats took only 43.2 seconds, compared to 128 seconds among non-maternal females. Researchers postulate that maternal rats had brains better adapted to the task of navigation because of its important role in supporting young—in this case, locating and securing food resources.
How human brains change during parenthood
While the 1999 study from Nature was done on rats, other studies have found that human mothers are also significantly affected by parenthood. In a 2003 study from Biological Psychiatry, researchers found that parents had different patterns of brain activation than non-parents in response to the sounds of infants. Regions of parents’ brains tied to emotional processing reacted more strongly to crying, while non-parents’ brains responded more to laughter.
It’s interesting to note that these activation patterns changed in both female and male parents—indicating that some of parenthood’s neural changes may be triggered by environment and exposure. The researchers point out this is yet another example of how neuroplasticity works on the brain.
For even more research on mothers’ brains, turn to Katherine Ellison‘s book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter.
This Sunday is Mother’s Day in many countries, so take a moment to consider the amazing, adaptive brains of parents everywhere. The brain’s ability to change in response to considerable challenges—whether such challenges come in the form of solving a problem at work or comforting a crying child—are truly inspiring.
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Kinsley et al. Motherhood improves learning and memory. Nature 401, 137-138 (11 November 1999). http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v402/n6758/full/402137a0.html
Seifritz et al. Differential sex-independent amygdala response to infant crying and laughing in parents versus nonparents. Biological Psychiatry – 15 December 2003 (Vol. 54, Issue 12, Pages 1367-1375). http://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(03)00697-8/abstract