News and Commentary

STUDY: Having Children Transforms A Woman’s Brain

A new study further confirms the differences between the sexes by showing that women’s brains actually transform after having children, making them more empathetic and understanding.

A recent essay in The Boston Globe explored the differences that occur in pregnant women on the neurological level. Using modern technology, they came back with extraordinary results. Jodi Pawluski, a researcher at University of Rennes 1 in France who focuses on “neglected neurobiology” of the maternal brain, says that motherhood is “one of the most significant biological events” a woman has in her life. From the essay:

Women experience a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding that primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit. Affected brain regions include those that enable a mother to multitask to meet baby’s needs, help her to empathize with her infant’s pain and emotions, and regulate how she responds to positive stimuli (such as baby’s coo) or to perceived threats. In the newborn months, a mother’s interaction with her infant serves as further stimulus to link her brain quite tangibly to her baby’s.

Some effects of those brain changes may moderate over time. Researchers have found that the anxiety or hypervigilance that many new mothers feel, for example, peaks in the first month postpartum and then diminishes. But they suspect that other effects linger, shaping mothers even well past their child-rearing years and even influencing their relationships with future grandchildren.

One study had researchers do before and after anatomical magnetic resonance imaging on women pre-pregnancy and post-pregnancy. They also scanned women who had never been pregnant and discovered a dramatic difference in the volume of gray matter in their brains, particularly in the organ’s social regions.

Elseline Hoekzema, who studies pregnancy and the brain at Leiden University in the Netherlands, found the results surprising.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in any of the data sets I’ve worked with,” Hoekzema said by e-mail. “In a way, it’s no surprise given the very extreme nature of the hormone floods that women are exposed to during this period, but still I hadn’t expected such remarkably robust findings and this degree of differentiation.”

Researchers found no change in gray matter makeup for fathers, indicating that women experience an entirely unique biological change when they become mothers.