Motherhood helps women grow their grey matter: Study

According to the latest research motherhood helps women grow their grey matter. The study was conducted by scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland and it showed that the brains of new mothers substantially gained in nerve cells while they coped with the steep learning curve of dealing with a newborn. Also in a bizarre way, mothers who ‘gushed’ the most about their babies showed the greatest growth in key parts of the brain.

For the study researchers looked at brain scans of 19 women, of whom 10 gave birth to boys and nine delivered girls. They compared images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after the women gave birth. The women averaged about 33 years old, all were breast-feeding, nearly half had other children and none had postpartum depression. The grey matter volume was found to have increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. These kinds of changes are commonly seen after intense periods of learning or a brain injury or illness.

The study appeared in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

Scientists explain the phenomenon by “hormone levels and the need to cope with the challenges of a baby led to the increase in brain cells.” The areas that developed after childbirth include those related to motivation, reasoning, judgment and the processing of emotions and feelings of satisfaction. These are keys to mother-child relationship. Hormonal changes that occur immediately after birth, include increases in estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin.

They write that improvement in the brain’s “motivation area”, called hypothalamus, could lead to more nurturing, which would help babies survive and thrive physically, emotionally and cognitively. Neuroscientists Dr Craig Kinsley and Dr Elizabeth Meyer added that this motivation might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building as is evident from their study. In another finding from the study, mothers who were more enthusiastic and thought of their babies as special, beautiful, ideal and perfect were more likely to develop bigger brains. Mothers who suffer postpartum depression may experience reductions, instead of growth, in these same brain areas, the researchers suggested.

The team speculates that more research in this area may provide more clues to this amazing phenomenon. Earlier studies have shown that these areas of the brain are commonly activated by maternal behavior said lead researcher, Pilyoung Kim. Dr. Kim explained that in rodents there was an improvement in mother’s memory, particularly spatial memory, including where she can find food.

Dr Kim added, “Mothers may feel more forgetful regarding things which are not baby-related, considering all the demands and changes they experience in their life during the first few months postpartum.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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