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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Mummy brain: Scientific truth or the perfect excuse?


Is mummy brain real? Or is it just a convenient excuse for new mothers? Health expert Maha El Akoum dives into the topic in this week’s feature.

Ever misplaced your keys only to find that they were in your hand? Ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went in there to do? Or lost your phone and found it again in your fridge? Ever made a grocery list, reviewed it a few times, then come back from the store with everything except that one thing you actually went to the store for?

If you’ve been in similar situations, you’re definitely part of a very large community. Just search the hashtag #mumbrain and you’ll find a plethora of relatable, humorous anecdotes.

But the resounding question remains: is mummy brain real? Or is it just a convenient excuse?

This perennial question has captured the attention of scientists around the world and research on this topic has shown that the mother’s brain is, in fact, impacted by having children, and that this impact could be long-lasting. However, there is no solid scientific evidence that shows that this change is directly responsible for memory impairment. 

The main reason mothers feel they are underperforming, while, in reality they are performing at their normal baseline cognitive level, is largely due to a cascade of hormones post-partum, coupled with sleep deprivation and a sudden increase in tasks that require attention.

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Simply put, instead of having to complete 20 tasks a day, for example, a new mother, with little or no sleep, is suddenly expected to complete 40. Therefore, quite naturally, even if the mother is functioning at the exact same cognitive levels as pre-pregnancy and childbirth, she would still only get 50% of her tasks done. 

A recent study published online in the journal Current Psychology, compared the attention and reaction times among 60 mothers all at least one-year post-partum with 70 non-mothers, and found no significant evidence to support “mummy brain” as society understands it.

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Mothers that participated in this study performed equally as well or better than women who had never had children or been pregnant. This study backs the theory that the changes that occur to the brain are simply the consequence of stress and sleep deprivation.

However, that is not the only possible explanation. 

Another study published by Nature Neuroscience in 2016, showed that pregnancy was found to be associated with reductions in volume of grey matter (tissue that serves to process information in the brain). 

The authors of this study attribute these changes to a process known as “synaptic pruning” whereby certain connections between brain cells are severed in order to facilitate the formation of new connections. These new connections could, in turn, help new mothers focus on specific behaviours as opposed to others.

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While it is difficult to establish a direct causation link, synaptic pruning could potentially provide another explanation to the more commonly known definition of “mummy brain”.

Reductions in grey matter in the hippocampus of the brain (responsible for regulating memory) can be reallocated to the parts of the brain that control “theory of mind” which better equip mothers with figuring out the needs and wants of someone else (in this case, her baby).

Instead of remembering the name of a movie for example, mothers can now better attend and respond to the needs of their non-verbal babies. These same areas of the brain also light up when mothers looked at their infants, suggesting that synaptic pruning promotes mother-baby bonding.

Dad brain?

Other researchers hypothesise that this synaptic pruning and reorganisation could also be linked to other changes in function causing postpartum depression.

There is even some evidence that the brains of fathers are also affected.

In one study, the brains of new fathers were scanned as they watched videos of themselves interacting with their newborns and compared it to brain scans from the mothers. An increase in activity in the amygdala was reported.

The amygdala is a region of the brain that is responsible for the processing of emotions. The study also revealed that the more involved the fathers were in taking care of their babies, the more their amygdalas resembled those of the mothers. 

Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].

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