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January 10, 2015

Women's brains evolve with motherhood

A baby's brain isn't the only one developing.

It turns out motherhood doesn't just bring about massive life changes — it's a brain changer.

Changes begin during pregnancy, with an increased concentration of gray matter, which is associated with connectivity in the brain. The changes run deeper than emotions, they're actually neurological, according to The Atlantic.

Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.

Scientists hope understanding mothers' brain makeup will give insight to problems like postpartum depression, suffered by one in six new mothers.

These changes begin with a woman's first child — and scientists are unsure whether the brain ever goes back to the way it was before. But that's not necessarily a bad thing overall, the Atlantic said.

Becoming a parent looks — at least in the brain — a lot like falling in love.

In fact, Scientific American reported that a 2012 study offered evidence that children's cells are living in their mother's brains. These cells are exchanged with the mother across the placenta during pregnancy:

In this new study, scientists observed that microchimeric cells are not only found circulating in the blood, they are also embedded in the brain. They examined the brains of deceased women for the presence of cells containing the male “Y” chromosome. They found such cells in more than 60 percent of the brains and in multiple brain regions....

In animal studies, microchimeric cells were found in maternal brains where they became nerve cells, suggesting they might be functionally integrated in the brain. It is possible that the same may be true of such cells in the human brain.

Studies also show that men also go through some neurological changes following the birth of a child.

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