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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Mommy brain’ is real, but research shows it might be beneficial

By Elizabeth Chang Washington Post

Psychologist and mother of three Alison Kravit has, on occasion, forgotten the word “therapy.”

Hollie Swire, a licensed independent clinical social worker and new mother of one, has set off for day care without the bag of her son’s clothes and bottles.

Christina Moran, a stay-at-home mom of three who has master’s degrees in nursing and public health, worries she won’t be able to process information quickly or express herself succinctly when she goes back to work. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling,” she said.

All are experiencing the foggy thinking and bouts of forgetfulness commonly known by such cutesy and patronizing terms as “mommy brain,” “baby brain,” “pregnancy brain” or “momnesia.”

Neuroscience, which has long studied the effect of pregnancy on animal brains, has finally turned its attention to the effect on the human brain – and the results are challenging commonly held assumptions about women’s intellectual abilities during and after pregnancy. This is prompting researchers to call for a reassessment of the concept of mommy brain, if not an entire overhaul.

“It’s Time to Rebrand Mommy Brain,” asserts a recent commentary in JAMA Neurology written by neuroscientists Clare Mccormack, Bridget Callaghan and Jodi Pawluski (whose French-language book about mommy brain “superpowers” is being translated into English). Rather than focusing on the alleged deficits of mommy brain, they argue, science should highlight the positive adaptations that occur when a human mother gives birth.

During pregnancy, research has shown, the human brain undergoes an extraordinary period of reorganization – known as neuroplasticity. “If you were looking at this data through the lens of baby brain as a negative thing, at first glance it can sound a little alarming,” said Mccormack, a research assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. But studies indicate that “this degree of change is actually really important, and it’s associated with more optimal caregiving behavior and better adjustment to this big transition.”

The plasticity of women’s brains during pregnancy is similar to during adolescence, Mccormack and her colleagues said. Both involve “hormonally mediated shifts in attention, motivation, cognition, and behavior necessary for adaptation to the new demands of life,” they wrote in the commentary.

“It makes sense that brains are really, really plastic during that time because there’s so many new things we need to learn (in order) to live with this wonderful creature,” said Liisa Galea, a neuroscientist who has called for the issue of mommy brain to be revisited. She is the Treliving Family chair in women’s mental health team at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada’s largest mental health hospital.

For example, MRIs show that gray matter volume is reduced after pregnancy in certain areas of women’s brains and is increased in others. The areas of the brain where reduction occurs correspond to the areas involved in decoding mental states in ourselves and others, prompting researchers to theorize that this makes these areas more efficient. Studies show that mothers with these brain changes are more attached and attuned to their infants. These changes last two years or longer.

“Just because we’re pruning down doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s actually good because we’re wiring new and different connections,” said Galea, who also leads the Women’s Health Research Cluster at the University of British Columbia. “Because we have to learn about those infant cries. We have to learn how to juggle more things. We have to be less selfish.”

While concerns about mental fogginess should not be dismissed, Mccormack said, those experiences, as well as research studies, might be influenced by what she and her colleagues call the “inescapable narrative” of mommy brain.

“Animal studies for a long time have asked the question of, ‘Oh, wow, how did this animal develop this new skill set and learn how to be a parent?’ ” she said. “And in women and humans, it’s actually been a really different framing of the question. It’s been, ‘Why are moms forgetful?’ ”

Although as many as 80% of pregnant women have said they experience cognitive problems when going about their daily lives, lab research has shown only minor negative effects on some areas of cognition. Furthermore, Galea noted, those results seem to be affected by a number of factors, including the trimester of the pregnancy, the sex of the baby and how many children the woman has given birth to.

Of course, that memory deficits in a lab setting are not as severe as women say they suffer in real life could simply be due to the fact that there are no interruptions or stresses – or children – in a lab. And it’s also possible that the forgetfulness some women experience is related more to stress and lack of sleep than to changes in their brains.

Galea said these women should not be overly concerned about their forgetfulness because research shows that a new mother’s memory gradually improves. Studies also suggest that, in middle age, women who have given birth have better memories than women who have not.

“I think we have to stop thinking about these things as positive and negative, just that they are natural,” Galea said. “I think what is not fair is to say, ‘Oh, it’s all in your head.’ You want to reassure people that, ‘Hey, this is a normal thing. It’s that your brain is being really plastic right now because you’re going to need to learn new things, and you need to do it fast.’ ”

What’s really important, she and Mccormack agree, is to figure out how this plasticity helps a woman adapt to motherhood. This could lead to targeted treatment for the 1 in 5 women who experience postpartum depression, as well as for those who suffer from other perinatal mood or anxiety disorders.

Another reason to research neuroplasticity related to pregnancy is to understand how these changes in the brain – some of which persist – affect women when they get older. There have been some signs that pregnancy raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Galea said, but there also have been studies finding that the more children a woman has given birth to, the younger her brain looks.

Unfortunately, there is reason to be concerned that such research will not be a priority, according to a study by Galea and colleagues. They analyzed neuroscience and psychiatry papers published in 2009 and 2019, and found that only 3% focused only on women, while 27% focused only on men.

While mommy brain can be disorienting and frustrating, some parents do see the positive adaptations that research is uncovering, Mccormack said. Anecdotally, they have told her that they revel in new expertise, such as improved multitasking and stress endurance, and the almost magical ability to understand what an infant needs.

Mother of three Christina Moran said that although she feels she has experienced more deficits than strengths, she can recognize the skills she’s gained.

“I managed to take all three of my kids – who are under 6 – to a children’s museum and a play and everyone was alive, everybody had fun,” she said. “I know that my brain has to function pretty quickly to keep track of it all. And I’ve been getting better and better at it.”

Hollie Swire, the clinical social worker, believes motherhood has made her more empathetic and allowed her to step back and see issues with a wider perspective.

When talking to her patients about mommy brain, psychologist and mother Alison Kravit tries to address both sides.

“I usually acknowledge that yeah, that sucks. Let’s think of some sort of way to improve this, whether it be planners or visual reminders, asking for help, or being self-compassionate,” she said. She also talks about the positives, such as bonding with an infant, and reminds mothers “that they have a 100 percent track record of getting through hard things.”

Swire said she thinks a rebranding of mommy brain could help new mothers.

“If people knew how much your brain capacity could change and will actually improve and help you be more efficient or more organized or more thoughtful and whatever you strive to be,” she said, “I think people would actually see it as such a gain and see it as such an important transformation.”