The Current23:41Rethinking and rebranding ‘mommy brain’
When Sara Blumenstein’s newborn daughter was getting a routine vaccine, the doctor asked her to sing a song to help distract her from the shot.
But to Blumenstein’s surprise, she couldn’t remember the lyrics to any children’s songs.
“They were like, ‘Do you know the alphabet?’ I was like, ‘I do know the alphabet. OK, here we go.’ But I needed a cue, I needed a little help,” she told The Current.
Blumenstein chalked the experience up to “mommy brain,” a side-effect of pregnancy that many mothers report experiencing.
Also known as “pregnancy brain” and “momnesia,” the condition is often characterized by increased forgetfulness of appointments, dates and names, and a loss of focus on things other than the baby.
But while as much as 80 per cent of pregnant mothers report experiencing memory problems during pregnancy, some scientists say the idea of “mommy brain” needs to be re-examined.
“What’s interesting is that studies — when you take an objective look at memory — really haven’t been able to line up some of those subjective reports with more objective, observable differences in memory between moms and non-moms,” said neuroscientist Clare McCormack.
“So it’s just really interesting because this leads us to wonder about what other interpretations are for what’s going on, and where that subjective kind of experience comes from,” she told host Matt Galloway.
McCormack recently published a paper with assistant professor of psychology Bridget Callaghan and neuroscientist Jodi Pawluski, calling for the rebranding of the term “mommy brain.”
It was published in JAMA Neurology in early February, and argued that “while complaints of mental fogginess should be taken seriously, it is likely the inescapable narrative of mommy brain contributes to these subjective reports”
We’re also just saying it’s time to reduce focus on what is lost with motherhood and start paying attention to what is gained and how it is gained.-Clare McCormack, neuroscientist
McCormack said that the narrative surrounding mommy brain could be a factor in some patients’ experiences.
“Is it possible that maybe you haven’t become more forgetful necessarily, but you have become more aware of what you are forgetting, and you have a label for it now,” she said.
“Especially if you’ve had this idea of ‘mommy brain’ — maybe you’ve been concerned about your identity or your abilities changing as you become a parent. So that would be a really salient thing for you, potentially.”
In terms of rebranding the term, McCormack said the point is about “drawing attention to a really significant gap in the scientific research.”
“We’re also just saying it’s time to reduce focus on what is lost with motherhood and start paying attention to what is gained and how it is gained,” she said.
“So changing that perspective is a really powerful thing, when you shift that focus and your thinking of pregnancy and adapting to parenthood as something that involves a lot of skill, something to wonder at.”
Part of that wonder is in how a mother’s brain structure changes during and after pregnancy.
“Overall, what you see is a reduction actually in brain volume and particularly grey matter rate in certain areas of the brain,” McCormack said.
Neuroscientist Liisa Galea, the Treliving Family Chair in Women’s Mental Health at CAMH, says this loss in grey matter volume is maintained postpartum, but as a person ages “we actually see a boost in volume and grey matter tissue.”
These changes, both in pregnancy and in postpartum, are associated with “huge changes in hormones” — with some potential positive health repercussions.
“Some people have described it as superpowers,” the senior scientist told Galloway. “You’re getting all these superpowers because you didn’t have this baby, you weren’t living with it before, and look what you’ve done — and your whole job is to keep this alive.”
Sometimes, people use the word ‘matrescence’ to describe pregnancy as a developmental period in adulthood.-McCormack
McCormack sees parallels between the hormonal changes in pregnancy and in adolescence — and the way those changes help people learn new skills, multi-task and even have better memory later in life.
“Amazingly, when you look at the brain changes that happen in adolescence compared to those you see over pregnancy, they look really similar, and I think that’s a kind of a powerful way of thinking of it,” she said.
“Sometimes, people use the word ‘matrescence’ to describe pregnancy as a developmental period in adulthood.”
Galea’s lab recently looked at 3,000 neuroscience and psychiatry studies from 2009 to 2019. The researchers found that there are nine times more studies in men and male animals than there are in women and female animals.
She said that’s in part to a prevalent idea that scientists and researchers “don’t need to use females because they’re too hormonal, they’re too complicated. So let’s just use males.”
“But, you know, males are not exactly the same as females,” she said. “It’s a very different substrate.”
She said it’s important to study what’s happening in women and female animals because “we have these female unique experiences like menstruation, hormonal contraceptive use, [and] pregnancy.”
“The language that often is used about hormone issues is dismissive, and it shouldn’t be dismissive.”
McCormack said this a major gap that needs to be bridged to bring a better understanding of what “mommy brain” actually means.
“Understanding what happens to the brain in pregnancy in the best of times is really a very important step that we need to understand [in order] to help mothers who do not have an easy time with that adjustment,” she said.
Produced by Amanda Grant.