A woman's brain changes in profound ways after she gives birth, new study shows



Along with the arrival of a new human being into the world, pregnancy also seems to result in something else life-changing — a woman's brain that's differently wired.

Just what sort of 'different' is less clear, but apparently some pretty notable changes take hold after a woman gives birth, according to a study published Monday in Nature Neuroscience.

It reports that, after pregnancy, women's brains hold less gray matter in certain areas of the brain, particularly those regions dealing with things like social cognition and theory of mind, or knowing what's going on inside someone else's mind, as explained by Scientific American.

The changes are thought to last for at least two years after birth.

Led by neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema of Leiden University, a research team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona carried out the study by looking at brain scans of 25 first-time mothers, from both before and after pregnancy, as well as the brain scans of 20 women with no children.

The study also scanned the brains of first-time fathers and found no differences like the ones spotted in new mothers' brains.

Areas of a new mother's brain that had gray matter reductions after birth were also the same areas that had the strongest response when she looked at a photo of her newborn child, according to the study. In looking at the changes, and how they relate to the new role of motherhood, researchers said it could all be part of a woman's transitioning into parenthood.

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Risk factors for complications during pregnancy
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Risk factors for complications during pregnancy

Advanced maternal age

Pregnancy risks are higher for mothers age 35 and older.

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Lifestyle choices

Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs can put a pregnancy at risk.

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Medical history

 A prior C-section, low birth weight baby or preterm birth — birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy — might increase the risk in subsequent pregnancies. Other risk factors include a family history of genetic conditions, a history of pregnancy loss or the death of a baby shortly after birth.

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Underlying conditions

Chronic conditions — such as diabetes, high blood pressure and epilepsy — increase pregnancy risks. A blood condition, such as anemia, an infection or an underlying mental health condition also can increase pregnancy risks.

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Pregnancy complications

Various complications that develop during pregnancy pose risks, such as problems with the uterus, cervix or placenta. Other concerns might include too much amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios) or low amniotic fluid (oligohydramnios), restricted fetal growth, or Rh (rhesus) sensitization — a potentially serious condition that can occur when your blood group is Rh negative and your baby's blood group is Rh positive.

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Multiple pregnancy

Pregnancy risks are higher for women carrying twins or higher order multiples.

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"Furthermore, the [gray matter] volume changes of pregnancy predict measures of postpartum mother-to-child attachment and hostility," the study said, explaining that brain changes could be indicative of that mother's newly forming relationship with her child.

"These results indicate that pregnancy changes the [gray matter] architecture of the human brain and provide preliminary support for an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood."

Major hormonal changes take place not just during pregnancy but during another notable life stage — puberty. And during that time, gray matter reductions also happen in the brains of boys and girls as they develop and prepare for adulthood, forming "more specialized and efficient brain circuits," according to the Associated Press.

If anything, a similar thing could be happening with the brains of new mothers, as the study suggests.

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