What are the changes in the brain during motherhood?

Have you ever wondered if there are any changes in the brain during motherhood? Science has answered this question and the latest studies show that indeed changes occur in the brains of women during this vital stage.

But what kinds of changes mainly occur? What brain structures are involved? What effect do these changes have on the mother’s behavior? Finally, is it the same with mothers who conceive naturally, as with mothers who undergo in vitro fertilization or with mothers who adopt? In this article, we are going to solve all of these issues.

    Changes in a woman’s brain during motherhood

    The changes in the brain during childbearing are mainly located in a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is a very primitive part of the brain, related to obtaining pleasure, gratification and reward.

    It activates our motivation and allows our will to guide our actions. It is also linked to learning, memory, fear, aggression, addictions, laughter … and very basic and primitive needs, such as sex or food intake. Later, we will talk in more detail about this structure and how it relates to changes in the brain during motherhood.

    “Hormonal boom”

    The changes mentioned they appear as a result of the great hormonal movement that occurred during pregnancy, And have as a direct consequence that mothers “fall madly in love” with their children.

    This hormonal movement, which consists of a great synthesis of different hormones, is very intense and sudden; in fact, it is generally considered to be even superior to the hormonal change that occurs throughout a woman’s fertile life.

    These changes mainly occur in the mesolimbic-dopaminergic system of the brain., Where dopamine acts both as a neurotransmitter and as a hormone. Dopamine is involved in pleasant behaviors, in regulating motivation, in desire and in the repetition of certain behaviors (especially those that strengthen us).

    Thus, science points out that during pregnancy there is a change in the activity of the nucleus accumbens, as we have seen, a structure closely linked to obtaining pleasure and strengthening, in this case the mother. This activity, in turn, is linked to the primitive and instinctive behaviors of the mother towards her baby, aimed at take care of it, protect it and promote its survival.

      The importance of the nucleus accumbens: what does the science say?

      We have seen how the nucleus accumbens is a brain structure linked to different human sensations, needs and emotions; learning, pleasure, motivation, fear …

      In relation to her and the changes in the brain during maternity, an investigation carried out in the department of Experimental Medicine of the Hospital Gregorio Marañón in Madrid and Cyber ​​Mental Health (CIBERSAM), by the team led by researcher Susana Carmona and with the collaboration of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), emphasizes that the nucleus accumbens undergoes significant changes in volume during pregnancy. More precisely, its volume decreases.

      Research suggests that these changes are directly related to the instinctive behavior of the mother. This research is available in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology (February 2020).

      Objective: the survival of the baby

      As we see, the changes in the brain during motherhood are mainly due to the aforementioned “hormonal boom”, which mainly affects the mesolimbic-dopaminergic system of the brain, as well as other secondary areas of it. These changes cause the mother’s behavior to organize herself to care almost exclusively for her baby. (Its development and survival, basically).

      “Addiction” to the baby (fall in love)

      The changes in the brain during motherhood make us think of a real “addiction” to the baby, on the part of the mother, like many areas of the brain that activate it in the face of addiction are activated (For example in sex, alcohol, smoking …).

      In addition, when faced with an addiction, all the structures and different brain systems are coordinated so that the individual obtains the reinforcement and / or the motivation which he aspires.

      But, What does this “dependence” mean at the level of the brain? In a study carried out by the Valencian Institute of Infertility (IVI) of Barcelona, ​​carried out among 25 women (early mothers) and 20 control women (who were not mothers), a decrease in the volume of the nucleus accumbens, for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques. The decrease in the size of this structure is linked to the aforementioned dependence.

      Decreased nucleus accumbens

      The results of this study, which are in line with the results obtained by the same team three years earlier, in 2017, through a study published in Nature Neuroscience, reveal that the decrease and modifications of the nucleus accumbens allow the baby to be a more striking, pleasant and relevant stimulus for the mother.

      In turn, this fact changes the mother’s behavior and will protect, care for and love her baby. These behaviors, logically, would not appear “on their own” in a woman who was not a mother.

      Dependency needed?

      We have seen how changes in the brain during motherhood involve, fundamentally, addiction or “falling in love” with the baby, which causes a series of instinctive behaviors to be triggered in the mother, aimed at promoting her integrity and her life. (of the baby).

      In line with all this, we find a very interesting idea from psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who states that for a baby to develop properly, there must be at least one adult who is madly in love with him.

      Natural pregnancy, in vitro and adoption

      One question that may arise in relation to changes in the brain during motherhood is: Does this happen in all “types” of mothers? In other words, in mothers who conceive naturally, in mothers who have undergone in vitro fertilization … well, the answer is yes, in all of them.

      On the other hand, with adoptive parents, there would be this fall in love or “addiction” that we were talking about, even if hormonal factors would not logically play the same role. The brain wouldn’t change either, which wouldn’t happen. In the case of adoption, then, more social and interactive factors with the baby would be involved..

      Bibliographical references:

      • Carlson, NR (2005). Behavioral physiology. Madrid: Pearson Education.
      • Hoekzema, E., Tamnes, Ch., Berns, P., Barba-Müller, E. et al. (2020). Becoming a mother involves anatomical changes in the ventral utensil of the human brain that facilitate its ability to respond to indications from the offspring. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 112.
      • Rosenweig, MR, Breedlove, SM and Watson, NV (2005). Psychobiology: an introduction to behavioral, cognitive and clinical neuroscience. Barcelona: Ariel.

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