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New study sheds light on brain changes in first-time mums

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The brains of first-time mothers undergo significant changes during late pregnancy and the early postpartum period, according to new research.

Findings from the the largest ever longitudinal neuroimaging study of mothers to date were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience this month.

They provide new insight into how pregnancy and childbirth impact the structure of brain structure.

A research team at the NeuroMaternal Lab at the Instituto de investigación Sanitaria Gregorio Marañón, tracked brain cortical changes during the peripartum period and explored how the type of childbirth affects these changes.

They used MRI to collected neuroanatomic, obstetric and neuropsychological data from 110 first-time mothers during late pregnancy and early postpartum, as well as from 34 women who had not given birth to a child, at similar time points.

During late pregnancy, mothers showed lower cortical volume than controls across all functional networks, and these differences attenuated in the early postpartum session. Default mode and frontoparietal networks showed below-expected volume increases during peripartum, suggesting that their reductions may persist longer.

The type of child birth also had an impact, with results pointing to different cortical trajectories in mothers who delivered by scheduled C-section.

“Pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum are characterized by very different hormonal, immunological, and environmental processes,” Susana Carmona, the head of the NeuroMaternal Lab told PsyPost.

“This study has enabled us to identify that these three stages also involve distinct neuroplasticity mechanisms, thus highlighting the necessity to evaluate how each of them uniquely shapes the maternal brain.”

The authors conclude: “This work suggests a dynamic trajectory of cortical decreases during pregnancy that attenuates in the postpartum, at a different rate depending on the brain network and childbirth type. Altogether, these findings position the perinatal period as a sensitive and vulnerable time for women’s neuroplasticity that deserves protection and further study.”

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