Baby on the brain
Is 'baby brain' just another side effect of pregnancy, or does Mother Nature have a trick up her sleeve? Tara Corristine investigates 'mumnesia'
A stop at the local convenience store for milk, bread and petrol doesn't usually end with a visit from An Garda Síochána. Except when you're three months pregnant and you only think to pay for your groceries. The officer was kind enough to let this mum off with a warning, and some advice: "You'd make a rubbish criminal."
Hormonal surges, swollen ankles and stretch marks… while pregnancy certainly takes its toll on the body, it may be some comfort to know that the forgetfulness many mums-to-be experience is due to the brain undergoing its own transformation. According to a recent study, the shape of a woman's brain alters during pregnancy and these changes can last up to two years. Though this may sound like the much-maligned 'baby brain', it would appear that this is the body's way of preparing a new mum for motherhood and strengthening the bond between her and her new arrival.
A recent study conducted by a research team from universities in Spain and the Netherlands used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the brain structure of 25 first-time mothers before they became pregnant and again two months after giving birth; 20 women who had never given birth were also part of the study. They discovered that the first-time mothers had less grey matter in certain parts of the brains compared to the women in the study who hadn't become pregnant, and this reduction persisted for up to two years.
According to co-author of the study, neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema of Leiden University, the areas of the brain that showed changes were associated with the 'theory of mind', or the ability to understand other people's feelings and beliefs. Changes were also seen in the parts of the mother's brain that forms attachments.
The idea of losing grey matter is a worrying one and it would be easy to lay the blame for forgetfulness or an inability to concentrate on a shrinking brain, but Dr Dara Cannon, a neuroscientist at NUI Galway, reveals that this is part and parcel of our brain's life-cycle. "There are dramatic changes in the brain up to the age of 10: it's very big and then it starts to get smaller and more efficient. As a teenager, your cortex thins as you develop an ability to do things. For example, when you learn to drive, you use less energy in particular brain regions once you've learned how to do it than you do while you're learning. It doesn't surprise me that the changes seen in the study persist even up to two years after because you don't get worse at being a mum after you learn how."
Rather than seeing a reduction in grey matter as a negative, she points out that it's the opposite: this is simply the brain's way of becoming more productive. "It's absolutely normal to see volume changes in the brain throughout life. You're refining the bits you need for the context you are in, so it's a natural adaption that's very positive. It's easy to think that less is worse, when in fact more efficient is the better way to think about it."
Hoekzema echoes the sentiment that smaller can mean smarter: "These reductions reflect an elimination of unnecessary connections, a specialisation and refinement of brain circuits. We refer to it as reorganising."
So how does this 'reorganisation' of our brain function help with new motherhood? Smarter wiring in the superior temporal sulcus - the area connected to understanding speech - can help us to figure out what baby is trying to tell us. Being better at deciphering our little bundle's coos and cries, says Dr Cannon, enables us to attend to their needs sooner. "There is plenty of evidence that the more responsive you are to little ones, the more secure their attachment, the healthier it is."
Another change was in the fusiform gyrus, the area of the brain concerned with facial recognition, and during the study, the authors saw an increase in brain activity when they showed mothers pictures of their own infants, as opposed to pictures of other babies. It was discovered that the greater the change in brain structure, the stronger the attachment to the infant. Dr Cannon puts forward another reason for this change: "Pregnancy and walking around with a newborn are times when you are more physically vulnerable so it makes survival sense to become better at recognising a threat."
A better understanding of other people's emotions and behaviour comes with changes in the precuneus, the part of the brain you access to look up the meaning of things. Hoekzema points out that the regions of the brain that saw a change most strongly overlapped with the network regulating the theory of mind, "the ability to understand what goes on in someone's mind".
What Hoekzema calls theory of mind, Dr Cannon refers to as social cognition. "Social cognition is our ability to sit in a room and notice that someone has changed their behaviour in a non-verbal way towards you, which might be due to something you said. You might recognise that and modify your behaviour. Being better at social cognition would mean being better at recognising different emotions in someone else's face, non-verbal and verbal cues."
By enabling new mothers to interpret their baby's body language and to understand their many and varied cries, combined with a greater degree of empathy, these alterations in the brain can all help to deepen and strengthen a mother's bond with their new bundle of joy. "We know that you are adapting to your environment all the time," says Dr Cannon, "and these brain changes are a natural change to your environment."
But what of the brain 'fog' that seems to accompany the birth of a new baby? While anecdotal evidence suggests that being forgetful or absent-minded is the hallmark of the new mum, when given a series of memory tests, the study revealed no differences between the women who became pregnant and the other participants. Hoekzema reported that their findings did not suggest any link to changes in abilities or intelligence.
The traditional idea of 'baby brain' can now be viewed as new mothers simply redirecting their focus to their new priority, something that comes as no surprise to Dr Cannon, herself a mother of three children.
"It's redefining what's important," she says. "A person might think baby brain means you have lost your memory, but what you're doing is getting better at certain things and it's reframing what you are paying attention to in the world. So it may not be as important to remember the list of ten things - it's simply more important to remember when their next feed is or their bath is."
Simple steps to improve your memory
Take an Omega-3 supplement: This fatty acid is a building block of the part of the brain responsible for memory, attention and language.
Plant some rosemary: Inhaling it can help focus and memory. Speak to your doctor before using any essential oils if you are breastfeeding.
Stretch your brain: Download a brain-training game on your phone, take a different route home or listen to classical music - which has been shown to improve memory, focus and attention.