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Pregnancy and motherhood alters women's brains, studies say

POSTED: June 7, 2015 12:39 a.m.
Mandy Morgan/

Pregnancy and former motherhood has been found to permanently alter a woman's brain, specifically its structure and how it and the body may react to future treatments or hormones later in life, recent studies say.

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Pregnancy and motherhood has been found to permanently alter a woman's brains, specifically how it and the body may react to future treatments or hormones later in life, a recent study says.

Researchers wanted to see how women who had given birth to children would respond to "estrogen hormone treatments, which are often prescribed to treat brain disorders in middle-aged and older women," reported CTV News.

They tested rats who had experienced motherhood, as well as rats who hadn't and found the estrogen treatment improved the learning of those rats that had been mothers, but impaired the learning of the other rats.

"Our most recent research shows that previous motherhood alters cognition and neuroplasticity in response to hormone therapy, demonstrating that motherhood permanently alters the brain," said Liisa Galea, head researcher of the study.

Being aware of how women's bodies may react to certain hormones in brain treatments could aid in knowing what will or won't actually help, or what could be dangerous with treatments.

"Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman," Galea said. "Our results argue that these factors should be taken into account when treating brain disorders in women."

Other studies have shown that many of the changes that take place for mothers are emotional changes in the brain โ€” including the regions that control empathy, anxiety and social interaction, reported the Atlantic.

"On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby," the Atlantic wrote. "In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain."

Women will often also experience postpartum depression, as well as an increase in obsessive compulsive behaviors, something that was studied to better understand changes in the brain, due to motherhood.

"In new moms, there are changes in many of the brain areas. Growth in brain regions involved in emotion regulation, empathy-related regions, but also what we call maternal motivation," Pilyoung Kim, a maternal brain researcher, told the Atlantic. "In animals and humans during the postpartum period, there's an enormous desire to take care of their own child."

Having children is a huge physical change for women, but changes in the brain, leading to severe emotional changes, is just one more thing many mothers may experience.
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