Mama (& Papa) Brain: Better Than Ever
Pregnancy Brain, Momnesia, Porridge Brain…. they are all terms that you understand all too well if you are pregnant and reading this book now. That mushy feeling and all the underlying emotions that seem to go along with it in pregnancy are real and they serve a good purpose. Mother’s grow new brains: they both grow and lose grey matter and the brains get rewired. It’s as if the brain is indeed being turned to mush with the help of all those pregnancy and postpartum hormones—including oxytocin, estrogen, and prolactin—so that it can be rewired for the work of being a mother. Indeed, many of those so-called pregnancy and pos
tpartum emotions including love, protectiveness, and even worry begin in the brain. Like so meanly other aspects of human biology and p
regnancy, scientific understanding on what happens to the brain in pregnancy is undergoing massive breakthroughs. Perhaps the science is beginning to catch up to what mother’s already know: the brain changes aren’t just in our heads.
In December of 2016 a new study came out and the headlines all read some version of “Pregnancy shrinks brains.” I found this particularly interested because a few years before studies had come out and the headlines all screamed “Pregnant moms grow new brain.” What gives I wondered?
Both studies showed that first time mothers consistency demonstrated a notable difference in grey matter volume in parts of their brain. The older study—which showed an increase in grey matter to be associated with the better adjusted new mother —was complemented by the new study—showing a positive correlation with a decrease in grey matter—by showing the increase and decreases were in different parts of the brain. The better adjusted new mothers had increases in parts of the brain including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and the hypothalamus associated with emotional regulation, survival instincts, and hormone production. If these latter areas shrank instead of grew, the result was mothers with more stress, anxiety, and poorer experiences of mothering.
The new study showed that mothers with the best attachments had a decrease in medial frontal and posterior cortex lines that are involved in social cognition, which is how we process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations.The researchers surmise that this period is one of great synaptic pruning, similar to what happens in a young child and again in adolescents, where under utilized neurological pathways—synapses—are eliminated to make way for new neural networks. The researchers found no corresponding changes in memory or other cognitive functions.
Of particular interest to many researchers is what happens in the amygdala—the part that the old study above said ought to grow—and that helps process memory and govern emotional reactions such as aggression, anxiety, and fear. In most mothers’ brains, this area continues to grow in the weeks and months after giving birth and is full of receptors for that cocktail of hormones that help feed the love, attachment, and care between the mother and her baby. It’s the part of the brain that lights up when the mother stares at her baby or elicits one of those early smiles. If that part of the brain is damaged or not growing normally, the results in the mother are noticeable and linked to higher levels of depression and greater anxiety. In the child it may effect whether he can distinguish between his mother and anybody else.
This part of the brain is also particularly sensitive to oxytocin, aka, the love hormone responsible for maternal-infant bonding. Oxytocin dramatically increases in pregnancy and the postpartum period and it also increases with breastfeeding. The more the mother is involved with her child, the greater the increase in oxytocin.
Once a Mother, Always a Mother
I have often found it hard to describe how much easier I found having the second child. It felt intuitively like I had already done most of the work becoming a mother with having my first child. Having
the second felt a bit like getting a masters degree: I had already figured out how to be a good student, what was a few more years? Indeed, why not spend those years simply worrying less and having more fun I figured. The brain research backs this up as the changes in a mother’s brain are most dramatic with her first child. Indeed, it isn’t clear that the changes ever fully convert. Some researchers explain that it is as if all women have the blueprint inside their brains for motherhood.
Papa Brain is Also Real and Forever
It’s not all about the mothers. While the newest study on grey matter was quick to point out that fathers don’t grown new brains, numerous other research shows that dad’s have the capacity for significant brain changes to support parenting. For men, these brain changes don’t seem to be driven by oxytocin, but are directly tied with caregiving. The more involved the father, the more he is supported by a feedback loop that helps wire his brain for that involvement.
Interestingly, it’s also been found that the “male” hormone testosterone decreases after a man becomes a father and the more involved he is in childcare the lower his testosterone drops. This is irrespective of how high his testosterone is before becoming a parent, indeed men with higher testosterone before parenthood actually seemed to have a better chance of becoming fathers. Lower lifetime testosterone may also impact men’s health, even decreasing chances of prostate cancer. This, as with much about parenting and the brain, is still being studied as is whether testosterone levels eventually rebound. This hormonal change, according to some researchers, suggests that men are also pre-programmed to be involved parents.
Interested in how the current research and traditional wisdom can help you have the healthiest pregnancy possible? The newest Green Mama book is for you. Find Green Mama-to-Be: Creating a healthy, happy, toxin-free pregnancy after August 15, 2017 in a bookstore near you.