Post-natal brain changes in women alter the size and structure of areas connected to perceiving the feeling and perspective of others, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The study, in which researchers compared the brains of women who have never conceived with those of women who gave birth for the first time, saw that changes in the brain of the new mothers remained two years after birth, The New York Times reported.
The neuroimaging, which happened in Spain, examined 25 first-time mothers before and after pregnancy along with 19 first-time fathers, The Washington Post reported. They were examined against 17 men and 20 women without children, looking for structural changes.
The results saw a loss of gray matter in several brain areas involved in a process known as social cognition or "theory of mind," the newspaper said. The process is connected with the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things.
The pattern of structural changes researchers saw in the new mothers was so distinctive, that they were able to identify the mothers just from their brain scans, according to the Post.
Elseline Hoekzema, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who led the study at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain, and others told the Times that losing the gray matter may not be a bad thing and has a specific purpose.
The hormone surges in pregnancy might cause "pruning or cellular adaptation that is helpful," Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study, told the Times.
He said the brain could be streamlining certain brain areas to be more efficient at mothering skills "from nurturing, to extra vigilance, to teaching."
"We certainly don't want to put a message out there on the lines of 'pregnancy makes you lose your brain,' as we don't believe this is the case," Hoekzema told the Times. "Gray matter volume loss does not necessarily represent a bad thing. It can also represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialization."
Hoekzema added that the pregnancy may help women's brains prepared for the needs of her infant, recognize social threats, or to promote mother-infant bonding, the Times wrote.
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