We all know that a woman’s body goes through many physical changes during pregnancy and after childbirth. But what is not well known is the fact that having a baby also changes the structure of the brain. Scientists have found that even adoptive mothers and fathers also develop changes in their brains as a result of caring for their children.
In pursuit of these findings, BBC science journalist Melissa Hugenbaum interviewed several experts dedicated to studying the effects of having children on the brain.
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“The drastic changes in hormone levels during pregnancy affect a woman’s brain, preparing her for motherhood,” says Byung Kim, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver in the United States. “We have found that, In the first few months of the postpartum period, mothers’ brains increase in size.. ”
For Kim, “This appears to directly contradict the popular concept of the ‘pregnant brain,’ referring to the myth that pregnant women are ‘forgotten’ and have difficulty concentrating.
Changes occur in areas of the brain that help raise children – Image: Getty Images via BBC
But neuroscientist Anne-Marie de Lange, of the University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, explains that this is not a myth. According to her, “Many women feel that their mental function has not been good during this period and that their memory is diminishing.”
De Lange suggests that the reason for this realization at a time of increasing brain size “may be because, During this period, the brain shifts to start focusing on something else.. There are studies that show that these changes are related to the mother’s behaviors, such as attachment to the child.”
The two scientists and other experts were able to identify the areas of the brain in which structural development associated with motherhood occurs.
Some of the affected areas are those related to the so-called reward circuit, which includes the prefrontal cortex and other smaller sections in the middle of the brain. These changes make women feel more motivated to answer their children’s calls and be happier when they smile, for example.
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There are also changes in areas of the brain related to emotional regulation, such as the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, that allow mothers to regulate their stress in the face of a crying baby. Another change in the area of the prefrontal cortex affects the ability to learn and make decisions, which helps the mother choose the most appropriate response to the situation.
On the other hand, Changes are brought about in six different areas related to empathy, which help mothers understand what their children may be feeling. Finally, all of the brain’s sensory areas – smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing – were optimized to help mothers interact with their newborns.
“If we analyze it from an evolutionary point of view, it stands to reason that all changes that enhance child care and protection are beneficial not only to the children, but also to the mother’s reproductive success,” says de Lange.
According to the specialist, “Some changes can be reversed after childbirth, but others can persist during the postpartum period and even for several years.” Including those that affect women’s mental health.
What experts don’t know for sure is whether these years-long changes are a result of childbirth and its hormonal fluctuations, or are in fact what we call “brain plasticity”: changes that are caused not by pregnancy but by the experience of raising children.
Brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity) is the process by which our brain reorganizes and modifies its network of neurons, in response to changes or internal or external factors.
Until recently, it was thought that only children could shape their brains in this way, but it is now known that many areas of the brain remain “plastic” – or can change – until adulthood. There is evidence that raising a child causes changes in the brain.
“The more experience the mother has, the more connections between neurons in areas of the brain important for childrearing,” Kim says. These changes can also occur in the parents’ brain.
Kim mentions a study conducted in Israel on pairs of men who had just given birth.
“It’s so much fun,” she says. “Not only did we witness that both parents had a greater cerebral response to their child, but also that the parent who was the primary caregiver showed more cerebral sensitivity than their partner.”
For Melissa Hoogenbaum, this shows that having children changes the mother’s or father’s brain beyond pregnancy – and also proves that “Biologically, women are not destined to be the primary caretakers of their children.“.
“Pregnancy certainly prepares the body, but it is becoming clear that the timing and intensity of emotional connections are related to how the brain changes,” she says.
A study of the long-term changes that motherhood causes in women’s brains also led to an unexpected discovery.
Research conducted by De Lange and his team at the University Hospital in Lausanne concluded that the brains of women who had given birth to multiple children appeared “smaller” than those of other women of the same age.
“They showed fewer changes in the brain like those that typically occur when we get older, such as gray matter atrophy or white matter reduction,” says de Lange. “This may indicate that having children at a younger age can have a protective effect on the brain as we age.”
But the researcher explained that the benefits found were “very slight” and that having children when they are young is just one of many factors that affect the way we age.
Therefore, de Lange emphasizes that Motherhood is also associated with high levels of stress. – Caused by lack of sleep and lack of social interactions, for example – affecting the aging process, as well as possibly harming the mental health of some women.
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