Contrary to the belief that women’s minds turn to mush after giving birth, a new study has claimed that motherhood actually helps women grow their grey matter.
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland found that the brains of new mothers bulked up as they coped with the steep learning curve of dealing with a newborn.
The study also found that Mothers who gushed the most about their babies showed the greatest growth in key parts of the brain.
The researchers scanned the brains of 19 women, of whom 10 gave birth to boys and nine delivered girls. A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after the women gave birth showed that grey matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain.
Such changes usually only occur after intense periods of learning or a brain injury or illness.
The researchers, who detailed their findings in the journal Behavioural Neuroscience, speculated that “hormone levels and the need to cope with the challenges of a baby led to the increase in brain cells”.
The brain areas that grew involve motivation, reasoning, judgement, the processing of emotions and feelings of satisfaction, and are key to the mother-child relationship.
According to the researchers, the expansion in the brain’s “motivation area”, called hypothalamus, could lead to more nurturing, which would help babies survive and thrive physically, emotionally and cognitively.
The motivation to take care of a baby, and the hallmark traits of motherhood might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building, neuroscientists Dr Craig Kinsley and Dr Elizabeth Meyer speculated.
Mothers who most enthusiastically rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal and perfect were more likely to develop bigger brains in key areas linked to maternal motivation and the regulation of emotions than the less awestruck mothers, they added.
Although these early findings require replication with a larger and more representative sample, they raise intriguing questions about the interaction between mother and child, said the report.