Is Pregnancy Brain a real thing?

It’s normal to feel like you’re in a daze during pregnancy. Doctor appointments and new medical information abound as you prepare for what’s ahead. There’s a lot on your mind. So it’s understandable if you leave your keys in the fridge or misplace your phone multiple times in one day.

Nonetheless, old wives’ tales, friends, and family often attribute this forgetfulness to “pregnancy brain”. Is there any truth to their musings? Is pregnancy brain a real thing? In this post, we’ll examine the existing body of scientific literature on the topic and find some answers.

What Is Pregnancy Brain?

Pregnancy brain is a colloquial term used by pregnant women and those around them to describe the temporal decline in mental bandwidth they experience during pregnancy. Marina Maslovaric, MD, an ob-gyn at HM Medical, describes it well: “Pregnancy brain refers to commonly experienced cognitive changes by women during pregnancy and postpartum,” she says. “The symptoms most frequently reported are forgetfulness and memory disturbances, poor concentration, increased absentmindedness and difficulty reading.” These symptoms are remarkably common, as Maslovaric explains: “Almost daily, a patient will say, ‘wait, I had a question I wanted to ask you but now I can’t remember or ‘I have some questions for you, and I wrote them down since I can’t remember things these days,’”

When Does Pregnancy Brain Start?

The onset of pregnancy can occur at any time during pregnancy. Some women will experience it during the first trimester when the swing in hormones is most drastic, and others in the third semester when sleep shortages and cramping reach their peak.

Is Pregnancy Brain Real?

As Dr. Maslovaric elucidates above, plenty of pregnant women show signs of cognitive decline during pregnancy. But does this mean that pregnancy brain is a real medical phenomenon? Or can these symptoms be attributed to something else? The answer isn’t exactly straightforward.

In a 2016 study, researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona took brain MRI scans of pregnant women. The scans revealed changes in brain regions associated with social cognition, which shapes how we perceive, remember, think about and deal with other people in our social circle. The hippocampus, which is an area in the brain associated with memory, also appeared to lose volume.

While the changes in brain matter were demonstrably clear, the correct interpretation is more equivocal. “Loss of volume does not necessarily translate to a loss of function,” explains Elseline Hoekzema, co-lead author of the 2016 study and a brain scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Sometimes less is more.” Hoekzema says the loss of gray matter could “represent a fine-tuning of synapses into more efficient neural networks.”

Maslovaric points out another open question. “There are two possibilities, and this study didn’t examine what exactly happened,” Maslovaric says. “Was there an increase in myelin, which is white in color, or was there an actual decrease in gray matter itself?” Myelin is a mixture of proteins and phospholipids that forms a whitish sheath around many nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted. Since it’s white, it may be tricky to interpret on a scan.

Even though about 80 percent of new mothers report difficulties remembering things that were once instinctual, a lack of focus, persistent confusion, and other symptoms of pregnancy brain, it’s difficult to deduce the causal role of changes in the brain. Hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and distractions are all equally plausible explanations.

Whatever the cause, the symptoms associated with pregnancy brain are remarkably common. The good news? You can allay some of these symptoms and preserve your sanity by making lists, eating nutrient-dense foods, and getting adequate rest.

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