Motherhood changes many things – “Nothing will ever be the same,” as people say – but while it may be obvious on a superficial level, it hasn’t always been obvious that this is true on a physiological level as well.
According to recent studies at the universities of Montreal, Oregon and elsewhere, the brain chemistry of a woman undergoes changes both during pregnancy and after giving birth to a child.
The studies found that the following major changes occur as a woman transitions into motherhood:
Increased Levels of Dopamine
According to a 2013 study conducted by a team at the Université de Montréal, the odor of newborns led to higher levels of dopamine in mothers than in non-mothers. Although dopamine can mean different things in different contexts, in this instance it refers to a neurotransmitter that plays a significant factor in controlling pleasure and reward centers in the brain. New moms therefore developed a chemical motivation to be near to and care for their baby.
Changes in the Amygdala
Although alterations occur in many parts of a woman’s brain during motherhood, a good part of the latest research focuses on the amygdala, a group of neurons that assist the brain in processing emotions. The research has confirmed that changes in the amygdala play an important role in a woman’s desire to care for and nurture her child.
A 2011 study conducted by a team at the University of Toronto Mississauga and published in Social Neuroscience, found that women had more activity in the amygdala when looking at pictures of their own babies, as opposed to other babies. The study’s research team connected this specific brain activity to fewer symptoms of depression and lower anxiety.
In addition, other studies, including one led by Dr. Lane Strathearn at the Baylor College of Medicine, have shown that the amygdala also experiences an increase in oxytocin, a chemical that is similar to dopamine, during pregnancy and breastfeeding, spurring further desire for a mother to be with her child.
A Man’s Brain Changes, Too
If a woman’s brain experiences such significant change with the birth of a child, does a father’s brain change as well? A study conducted by a team at the University of Oregon attempted to answer that question.
The study, published in 2014, found that a man’s amygdala is in fact subject to similar changes, depending on how involved he is with the childcare. Although activity in the brain was similar to what occurred in women, men however did not show similar increases in oxytocin.
A considerable amount of research into how motherhood changes the brain has been done during the past several years, and it’s likely that considerably more will be coming down the pipeline.