Science confirms it: Motherhood changes your brain

It’s about time research caught up with what we mothers already knew to be true—pregnancy changes women's brains.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

I didn’t exactly need science to tell me that motherhood changed my brain forever.  I know my brain has been altered by my children—I’m quite positive that I donated a serious amount of IQ points to them. But anecdotal evidence doesn’t actually prove anything, which makes the latest study from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience especially noteworthy.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia studied the impact of two types of estrogen hormones on the brains of female lab rats—some of whom had had babies, some who had not. They found that injecting the rats with estrone (the predominant form of estrogen in older women) lessened learning ability in middle-aged rats who had had babies, but actually improved the ability to learn in rats who’d never given birth.

Neuroscientist Dr. Liisa Galea believes this proves pregnancy permanently alters the brain. “Hormones have a profound impact on our mind. Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman. Our results argue that these factors should be taken into account when treating brain disorders in women,” she says. “Our most recent research show that preview motherhood alters cognition and neuroplasticity in response to hormone therapy, demonstrating that motherhood permanently alters the brain”, says neuroscientist Dr. Liisa Galea.

When I think how much puberty changed me (and is currently changing my son), and how my mother was affected by menopause (sorry Mom!), it only makes sense that the hormones in pregnancy would change a woman’s brain forever. And it’s about time that science caught up with what we mothers already knew to be true.

The focus of Galea’s research is on how hormones affect the brain and behaviour. Her research on “mom brain” isn’t just to make us forgetful folks feel better, though. It can have far-reaching implications when it comes to prescribing medications and studying diseases in women, especially when it comes to Alzheimer’s and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

The headlines coming out of these kinds of studies are often “Baby Brain is Real!” or “Mom Brain Exists!” We’ve even been guilty of that here at Today’s Parent. But what does the cliché of “mom brain” really mean? Is it just about being distracted and absent-minded?

I’m guilty of being extremely forgetful. I’ve searched for my cellphone all over the house… while talking on my cellphone. I’ve found my coffee cup in the oven, and tried to place a roast in the dishwasher. I’ve called each of my kids by the dog’s name, and the dog’s name is usually a composition of all three of the kids’ names. My kids know I will not remember if I signed their permission forms, or where I put their soccer shin pads.

But I’m also able to multi-task and remember the kids’ complicated schedules while still half-asleep. I can produce their friends’ parents’ phone numbers in an instant. I can make dinner, help with homework and watch a gymnastics move. I can work out a car pool strategy and I can plan a multi-step birthday party in my sleep.

Whatever you call it, “mom brain” is real, there is no question that my brain has both grown and shrunk in indescribable ways. I don’t know if it’s the hormones and physical changes or just the busy, complicated life of a family that causes my brain to function differently.

But I’m happy to know that someone out there is looking at the science and figuring out how the crazy physical and emotional ride of motherhood affects our brains, and how we can be best served by medicine in the future. I just hope science helps me find my coffee before it gets stone cold.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

Read more:
#ThisIsMyLife—Mom brain>
Pregnancy brain: It’s not all in your head>

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