Motherhood changes brain structure

(Australian Associated Press)


Researchers say ‘baby-brain’ is actually a good thing after finding hormonal changes in a mother’s brain can benefit women later in life.

Areas of the brain responsible for empathy and theory of mind – the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings or needs – are fine-tuned to support the tasks of motherhood.

These are important for providing appropriate care, particularly for pre-verbal babies, where mothers need to identify and respond to their baby’s changing needs.

Two studies, published in PLOSONE and Cerebral Cortex, led by PhD candidate Winnie Orchard at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, show changes in the maternal brain endure into late-life.

Parents need to quickly learn new skills, with many having to juggle the needs of more than one child at different stages of dependency.

Researchers studied the structure and function of the maternal brain in women in their 70s and 80s.

They found that women who had parented more children showed younger patterns of brain function. There were also benefits to memory ability, where mothers with more children showed better verbal memory performance.

“We show a consistent pattern across brain structure, function and cognition that suggests motherhood is neuroprotective for the ageing maternal brain,” Ms Orchard said.

“The life-long experience of motherhood provides ongoing environmental complexity and demands, keeping mothers on their toes well into late-life,” she said.

The transition to motherhood is called “matrescence”, similar to “adolescence”, as pregnancy and the postpartum period prepare women for motherhood.

Just as the brain changes in adolescence, so it does in matrescence, yet the understanding of those changes is itself still in its infancy.

“It is too early to say that motherhood is outright beneficial for the ageing human brain, however, our recent findings suggest that motherhood physically and functionally reshapes the brain for a lifetime”.


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