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    After birth, women’s brains are not quite the same



    Bbeing pregnant is not just about having strange cravings, eating for two or getting ready to sleep less. It also entails undergoing fundamental biological changes. And if you think that it only lasts for nine months of pregnancy, think again!

    Recent research shows that mothers’ physiology changes in the years, or even decades, after the birth of their child. But it doesn’t stop there. Having a child turns an adult into a parent. This means that it’s not just the body but also the mind that changes radically. While we can imagine the extent to which motherhood causes change on a psychological level, we’re not necessarily aware of what actually happens on a cerebral level.

    Elseline Hoekzema from the University of Amsterdam and her colleagues from the University of Madrid had the opportunity to follow the morphology of cerebral gray matter in women before and after pregnancy, up to two years after giving birth. This was compared to data for fathers and control women who had never had a child. The results of this first large-scale study are revealing. They show that pregnancy is specifically associated with significant and lasting changes in the volume of cerebral gray matter in mothers, including reorganization of a small region known for its involvement in social cognition and particularly our ability to put ourselves in the place of others. This is invaluable for making sense of the reactions of newborns, who cannot express themselves verbally. But that’s not all.

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    It turns out that the brain area that changes is almost superimposed with the one that’s activated when mothers look at their babies after delivery. Ultimately, the degree of change in volume of this brain area during pregnancy predicts the level of attachment of a mother to her baby. According to the authors, this brain plasticity could therefore truly underlie the transition process toward motherhood. Long-range recording sessions carried out post-delivery reveal that these modifications last at least two years after pregnancy. They demonstrate the extent to which motherhood modifies the maternal brain on a long-term basis.

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    Based on these results, the same team was recently able to show that pregnancy also modifies white matter, and particularly the “default mode” network. This network constitutes a kind of cerebral signature and is also transformed when a woman becomes a mother. This reconfiguration of neuronal architecture is essentially linked to the level of the hormone estradiol released during the third trimester of pregnancy. It also seems to determine the attachment and reactivity of mothers to the signals of their infants. Mothers know that their baby is a part of them and will remain so for many years!

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