Most people have heard of "baby brain," but they might not be familiar with its distant, more scientific cousin — pregnant brain.
Yes, while heads may nod sympathetically for new mothers and fathers who forget words, or lunches, or buttons on shirts, some new information has been found to support the notion that women's brains physically change during pregnancy, and might not ever be the same again.
According to research from Leiden University in the Netherlands recently published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, when a woman becomes pregnant, the volume of grey matter in her brain changes, to such an extent that it can actually be determined whether or not a woman has been pregnant before.
The area in which the biggest changes are shown? The part of the brain that corresponds to bonding.
"We found, for example, that the brain areas that change during pregnancy coincide in part with those areas in a woman’s brain that exhibit the strongest response to her child in the period after the birth," explains researcher Elseline Hoekzema. "Another finding was that certain measures of mother-child bonding could be predicted on the basis of the structural changes in the grey matter of the brain."
Considering the amount of hormones flooding into a woman's body during pregnancy — including a volume of estrogens that typically exceed estrogen exposure of a woman’s entire non-pregnant life — it's not a huge surprise to scientists that this will affect the brain, but it's never been studied before.
"We suspect that, as in adolescence, these changes [to the brain] could — at least partially — reflect a selective fine-tuning of connections into a more specialized and efficient neural network," says Hoekzema.
According to CNN, this information directly relates to the brain regions involved in understanding the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and intentions of others, which makes sense, given the huge lifestyle change that occurs as soon as a baby is born.
As the study notes, "Pregnancy changes the gray matter architecture of the human brain and provides preliminary support for an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood."
That's right — even if your thoughts might be scaring you into thinking you're not ready to be a mother, your body literally creates the groundwork for you to be able to do it.
The study also checked to make sure it wasn't simply a matter of becoming a parent that created these changes by contrasting new mothers' brains with new fathers', and found that there was no comparable difference in grey matter in the men.
Furthermore, when follow-up studies were done on the women who had not yet become pregnant again two years later, the changes were still readily seen, demonstrating that the reductions in grey matter lasted for at least that long.
So science appears to be confirming what mothers have always known — once you're a mom, you're always a mom.