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Dr. Mayo: Mom Brain

How does your mother's brain work?


by Dr Nicolle Mayo - February 27, 2019

In 2016, a team of researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study brain changes during pregnancy (Hoekzema, Barba-Muller, Pzzobon, Picado, Lucco, Garcia-Garcia, …Vilarroya, 2016). They compared MRI images taken of women before their pregnancy and after giving birth, finding that pregnancy shrinks the brain’s gray matter. Gray matter is the pinkish-gray tissue containing cell bodies needed for messages to travel through the brain and body. Gray matter volume loss, in this case, does not necessarily imply something negative. It could actually be the brain’s attempt to perfect neural connections in certain regions of the brain, similar to changes undergone during puberty. Further research has been able to identify that the brain regions affected during and after pregnancy are connected to empathy, self-monitoring and reflection (Lombardo et al., 2010; Schnell, Bluschke, Konradt, & Walter, 2011) specifically in relation to nurturing a baby. This suggests an enhancement in the mother’s ability to take care of her baby, translating behavioral cues, cries, and coos into specific needs.

While empathy towards an infant might increase for mom after childbirth, other studies show mixed findings associated with a mother’s memory during later pregnancy and after childbirth. Studies suggest that various aspects of memory (i.e. how we remember our environment or specific events) are not critical for ensuring a baby’s survival; therefore energy is shifted away from these memory banks and focuses more on tuning into an infant’s emotional and social cues. The brain focuses on specializing skills related to adapting to motherhood.

Other brain images have shown increased levels of activity in mothers’ reward/ maternal motivation brain circuits as a result of seeing their baby’s images, and hearing their cries. It’s hormones like dopamine (associated with rewards) and oxytocin (associated with social bonding) that sensitize this circuit (Rutherford, Williams, Moy, Mayes, & Johns, 2011). The release of oxytocin may also be what hinders memory functioning, but particularly in relation to reducing bad memories (Heinrichs, Meinlschmidt, Wippich, Ehlert, & Hellhammer, 2004). What this means is that mothers may more easily forget the trials and tribulations of pregnancy and parenting, so that one day, they might have another child.

Still, other studies have found increased activation in other parts of the brain, specifically tied to emotional regulation (Barrett & Fleming, 2011; Kim et al., 2011; Rutherford, Wallace, Laurent, & Mayes, 2015). Emotional regulation tends to foster emotional stability, positive coping with the new changes and demands of mothering an infant, and increase sensitivity to the baby’s needs (Ho et al., 2014). As a result, mothers with higher levels of emotional regulation are more likely to feel positively towards their baby and nurture a stronger mother-infant bond.

With all of this data at hand, it might be comforting to know that our brain is pretty adaptable to life’s changes. Any lapses of memory, or judgment may have everything to do with the hormonal and brain changes mothers endure, along with chronic fatigue. Your brain is prepping you for motherhood! Fortunately, data show that some of these more negative symptoms last for about 2 years. This may seem like a long time if you have just started this marathon, but in the long-term scheme of things (like 18+ years of raising a child), it might not actually be so bad. If it helps, MANY women have experienced all of these things, and so much more as part of this process! Let that thought be validating to you as a [new] mom.


Videography: Ethan Chabala

Video Editing: Ethan Chabala

Writing: Dr Nicolle Mayo


Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by Laurel Health Centers, Matthews Motor Company

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