Ever suffered from a bad case of Mom Brain? You know, like turning the entire house upside down to try to find the sunglasses you left on top of your head or driving halfway down the street before you realize you forgot to change out of your pajamas? Those total brain farts might make you feel like you're losing it, but we've got good news for you: Mom Brain is, indeed, a real thing, according to recent research published in Nature Neuroscience.
In the December 2016 study, researchers analyzed detailed brain scans of 25 women both before they became pregnant with their first child and two months after their first child's birth. During their analysis, the researchers paid close attention to the makeup of the women's brain tissue, comparing it to brain scans of 20 women who had not been pregnant, 19 first-time fathers, and 17 childless men.
When they compared the first-time mothers' post-birth brain scans to their pre-pregnancy brain scans, the researchers found that their brains seemed to have lost some gray matter, aka the tissue in the brain that helps us process information. The change was so significant, in fact, that the researchers could tell which women in the study had been pregnant — and which had not — just by looking at the scans.
Now, losing brain tissue might sound like a bad thing (like, um, a very bad thing), but the researchers say that's not necessarily the case: In fact, study co-author Elseline Hoekzema, PhD, a neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Science News that a similar loss of gray matter occurs during our teen years, and it's "essential for a normal cognitive and emotional development."
When you look at it that way, Dr. Hoekzema says, pregnancy and motherhood can be seen as a sort of second stage of brain maturing, during which a mom's brain becomes more responsive to her baby. Another later set of scans revealed that these brain-tissue changes lasted for at least two years after the first-time mothers gave birth, potentially helping them better care for their babies long-term.
What do scientists think causes this loss of tissue? Their best guess is that pregnancy hormones (think: estrogen and progesterone) are responsible for the change; the first-time fathers analyzed in the study didn't seem to experience any changes to their brain makeup, which means the social implications of becoming a parent aren't likely causing the change in tissue. Another possibility: The effect of an extreme drop in hormone levels immediately following giving birth.
That said, this was a small study and more research needs to be done to really figure out what these brain changes mean for new moms. In the meantime, however, rest assured that you're probably not going nutty when you put the sponge in the fridge and the milk in the dish rack — you're just having a #MomBrain moment.