There are conflicting views on the effects of pregnancy on the human brain and impact to cognitive skills, such as memory, attention and executive functioning.

By Gemma Monaghan, Technical Analyst & Delivery Manager

Whilst I would like to attribute my occasional (regular!) forgetfulness and poor navigational skills to the little human I’m currently harbouring, I’m not entirely convinced.

The physical changes during pregnancy are pretty obvious, but there are conflicting views on the effects on the human brain and impact to cognitive skills, such as memory, attention and executive functioning.

In 2014, primarily supported by animal studies, evidence suggested that womens brains in their third trimester could shrink as much as 8 %, induced by increases in stress hormone levels, progesterone and oestrogen (up to 20 and 300 times higher than normal, respectively)[1]. This is supported by findings from doctors at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, who believe poor concentration, lack of co-ordination, and memory problems in late pregnancy may be linked to the changes in brain size observed. They postulate that the brain changes are more likely to be the result of changes in the volume of individual cells rather than in the quantity of brain cells, and found that it can take up to six months for the women’s brains to regain their full size[2]. A contradicting study, which examined pregnant women in the third trimester and three months postpartum with matched controls, demonstrated no discernable difference between the two groups, with performance in objective neuropsychological test results comparable[3].

More recently, Liisa Galea, a neuroscientist specialising in this field, discussed that motherhood can actually improve brain activities. Testing in rodents suggests that mothers in the longer term score better on memory and multi-tasking than females who have not given birth. She explained “It’s like their brain becomes more prepared to deal with the responsibilities of keeping their family safe and organised”[4]. A study this year reiterates this; while pregnant women display a loss in grey matter that deals with people’s feelings and nonverbal signals, this is not directly attributed to a loss of function. Women appear to be more efficient at processing, enabling improved interpretation of their babies’ needs and emotions, and therefore increasing their maternal connection. Data in this study provides evidence that changes in the brain can last up to two years[5].

Changes are not just for mothers either; fathers have been shown to develop lower testosterone levels, a hormone linked to aggression. The most significant reductions were observed when fathers seen their child in distress[6].

So, I’m pretty convinced there are neurological changes happening, both during pregnancy and after birth. Whether this will improve my cognitive skills after birth – let’s find out in 16 weeks!!


[1] www.livescience.com/45492-how-motherhood-affects-the-brain.html
[2] www.newscientist.com/article/mg15320640-400-pregnant-women-get-that-shrinking-feeling/
[3] D. M. Logan et al, Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, Volume 36, 2014, Issue 5
[4] https://news.ubc.ca/2014/05/02/moms-brain-is-different/
[5] E. Hoekzema et al,  Nature Neuroscience,  Volume 20, 2017, Issue 2
[6] M. Hojat, Empathy in Health Professions, Education and Patient Care, 2017, Chapter 10 – Empathy and Gender: Are Men and Women Complementary or Opposite Sexes?

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