Baby brain is real and lasts for years, says study

The first evidence that pregnancy has a long lasting effect on a woman's brain has been published.

By Ellie Hooper
The term ‘baby-brain’ has been thrown around for decades.
Referring to the forgetfulness and heightened emotions often attributed with new motherhood, baby brain is often blamed for new mums feeling as though they’re unable to think clearly.
But despite the number of women who report feeling this way, little research has previously been conducted into how pregnancy and birth – and all the hormonal changes that go with it - might affect the female brain.
Researchers from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and Leiden University in The Netherlands, investigated the “radical physiological and physical adaptations” that come about due to hormone surges during pregnancy, and their findings were published in Nature Neuroscience this week.
What they found was that baby brain is not just an old wives’ tale – but a very real phenomenon.
Using first time mums, researchers looked at their brains before pregnancy, soon after they gave birth and two years later, to observe any changes.
They also looked at the dad’s brains, plus women and men who had not had children.
In women who had babies, pregnancy had reduced the grey matter in their brain substantially – in areas commonly associated with attributing feelings to other people.
According to the study, these changes lasted for two years following birth.
Researchers hypothesised that this reduction in grey matter would help new mothers recognise the needs of their child, be more aware of social threats and to bond with their babies.
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The results were so consistent in the women who had had children, scientists were able to pick their brain scans from a group.
Researchers found that the same area where the reduction in grey matter occurred lit up when mothers were shown pictures of their own children. The same areas did not light up when shown images of other children.
“Our data provide the first evidence that pregnancy confers long-lasting changes in a woman's brain,” reads the study’s abstract.
“We show that pregnancy is associated with pronounced and long-lasting Grey Matter volume reductions in a woman's brain, which are primarily located in regions involved in social processes and show a notable similarity to the theory-of-mind network.”