Last summer we debunked the myth of the “foggy mommy brain” during and after pregnancy by looking at a study that actually showed improved brain memory, efficiency, and productivity in new mothers following labor and delivery. The researchers found anatomic changes in the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain involved in memory, attention, language, and emotion. A new study published this week describes these anatomic changes in more detail — changes that are long-lasting (at least two years) after pregnancy, according to Maggie Fox:

Pregnancy changes a woman’s brain, and the changes last for at least two years, European researchers reported Monday.

The changes are so clear and consistent that it’s possible to tell if a woman had a child simply by looking at her brain scans, the team reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The changes look like a careful pruning of connections, perhaps in a way that helps a woman focus better on her baby, the researchers said.

 

There were no “foggy mommy brain” symptoms seen in any of the study’s subjects, which some moms might find reassuring. Fathers of newborns, on the other hand, were part of the control group and they showed no changes in their brains, which some dad’s might find discouraging:

The women who had just had their first baby had less “gray matter” —a type of brain cell — in the cerebral cortex, Hoekzema’s team found. Neuroscientists say the specific areas that got pruned appear to be involved in understanding what other people are thinking or feeling.

Men did not show the same changes.

The bigger the changes, the more attachment the mother seemed to show toward her baby, the team reported. “These results indicate that pregnancy changes the gray matter architecture of the human brain and provide preliminary support for an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood,” they wrote.

In other words, they help women become better mothers.

 

Pregnancy is not the only period in life that shows off the human brain’s plasticity and ability to change structurally. Adolescence is also a time when hormones rage and exert a strong influence on brain development:

There’s another stage in life when the human brain is soaked in hormones and undergoes pruning. It comes right after puberty. The researchers note that cutting unneeded or unused brain connections helps the brain focus on what’s important.

At least one study has suggested that a failure to trim brain circuitry may underlie some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

“Synaptic pruning in adolescence is generally regarded as an essential process of fine-tuning connections into functional networks and is thought to represent a refinement and specialization of brain circuitry, which is critical for healthy cognitive, emotional and social development,” Hoekzema’s team wrote.

“On the basis of our results, we may speculate that the female brain undergoes a further maturation or specialization of the neural network subserving social cognition during pregnancy,” they added.

 

And the male brain? Not so much.

 

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