Is ‘mum brain’ real?

3 minute read

Researchers argue that reports of parental cognitive decline have been greatly exaggerated.

The concept of “baby brain” is not supported by scientific evidence and ignores the cognitive gains that occur during parenthood, researchers say.

And normalising mental struggles during parenthood diminishes the essential role of parents in society and devalues the need to support them, the US and French researchers argue in a viewpoint in JAMA Neurology.

“The idea that motherhood is wrought with memory deficits and is characterised by a brain that no longer functions well is scientifically just not so.”

In fact, mothers and fathers gain remarkable cognitive function when they adapt to parenthood, the researchers wrote. 

Becoming a parent is “a profoundly important developmental event, facilitated by well-documented heightened neuroplasticity”, the researchers said.

“In human mothers, and parents, we are seeing a number of enhanced cognitive and emotional abilities that are linked to remarkable changes in the brain.

“For example, functional brain adaptions are reported in birthing and non-birthing parents as they learn the suite of behaviours necessary to keep their offspring alive.”

There is evidence that shows mothers experience structural changes, including reduced grey matter volumes in the prefrontal regions and hippocampus – the brain areas important for memory, for up to six years post-partum.

But the viewpoint authors said these changes weren’t associated with a worse performance on objective memory tests. Instead, they were associated with enhanced care-giving sensitivity.

Overall, empirical studies have rarely found objective differences in memory among mothers and non-mothers, the authors said. But there was evidence that pregnancy could affect some cognitive performance.

“Studies in pregnant women report subtle memory decrements compared with nonpregnant control women; however, reported differences tend to be small and concentrated to specific tasks that tax prefrontal cognitive reserves (eg. verbal paired associates, prospective memory).

“Among the few studies conducted in the postpartum period, nonsignificant differences in memory between mothers and non-mothers are frequently reported.”

The authors also cited research that found pregnant women had better long-term memory than never-pregnant women.

However, they acknowledged that memory testing usually occurred in laboratories with minimal distractions, far from the mental load of daily parenting life (and where no one was asking parents to do anything apart from answer questions in a nice quiet room, possibly even with a hot cup of tea and some biscuits that no one else was trying to eat).

The researchers said expectations of mum brain may also be self-fulfilling in a society where normal behaviours such as forgetting a word or misplacing keys are highlighted as something more.

Just as with adolescence, “matrescence” entails significant brain changes, the authors wrote.

“Both adolescence and matrescence are sensitive neuroplastic windows characterized by hormonally mediated shifts in attention, motivation, cognition, and behaviour necessary for adaptation to the new demands of life.”

The “impossible ideal” of a natural and perfect mother prevailed in society, the authors said, often without enough resources devoted to supporting parents.

“Perhaps complaints of mommy brain have, thus, become a cry for help, a way of naming the impossibilities of the mental load of motherhood and laughing them off as a personal failure of the brain’s capabilities.

“The troubling consequence of normalising mental struggles at this critical life phase is that it diminishes the capacities of the maternal brain and the essential role of parents in society.”

JAMA Neurology 2023, online 6 February

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×