Memory Loss and Pregnancy

January 25, 2012

Momnesia, pregnancy brain, mommy brain and pregnancy amnesia are all names that refer to a phenomenon associated with pregnancy - memory loss. Most women will swear their brains go on hold when they become pregnant, especially in the last trimester. Missing keys, missing cars, and sometimes even missing kids are some of the symptoms reported by mothers.

Pregnancy Mind

The fact is that pregnancy brain is a real thing and the woman dealing with it is not crazy. It's happening. But, the question is: Is this a medical situation or is it brought on by other things? Over the years researchers have tried to sort out the question and, as we would expect, there is support on both sides of the equation. However, the burden of proof rests rests on the studies that show the woman's brain does not change during pregnancy, even though her ability to remember some things does.

Previously, studies were unable to establish a clear link that could explain memory problems in pregnancy and the data was reported on an anecdotal basis. There was a study some years ago that determined a woman's brain shrunk during the last trimester and plumped up again after the baby was born. But, does that affect memory? We now know that Omega3 fatty acids, vital for brain health, are used by the growing baby and can deplete the mother's supply substantially. Consequently, it is necessary to restore the supply. That's why women are encouraged to take Omega3's when they are pregnant - the brain has a high percentage of fat in it and the fatty acids are important to brain function.

Reduced Brain Power in Pregnancy

A research study lead by research midwife Ms. Diane Farrar of the University of Bradford and Bradford Institute for Health Research in England found that pregnant women's spatial recognition memory ability was reduced during the later stages of pregnancy, and this effect persisted for at least three months following birth.

Spatial memory enables us to lay down memory for location and surroundings and then retrieve the information at a later time. For instance, remembering our way to a certain store or remembering where we left the keys to the car. Spatial memory is associated with the hippocampus region of the brain. If hormone levels are changed, as they are in pregnancy, the function of the hippocampus can be affected.

The research done by Ms. Farrar examined the effect of pregnancy on maternal memory and wellbeing and also measured the levels of certain sex hormones in the women involved in the study. A total of 47 women took part in the study, 23 pregnant women and 24 non-pregnant women. They filled out questionnaires to determine their mood and anxiety levels. The results were compared between the two groups.

The findings revealed that the pregnant women in their second and third trimesters performed significantly worse than the non-pregnant women on spatial memory tests. The memory effect was still present three months after the birth of the baby.

The women who were pregnant also had lower mood and higher anxiety scores than the non-pregnant women; however, they were all essentially the same at the three-month post-birth point.

Ah-Ha! It's the Sex Hormones in Pregnancy

The finding suggest that the high levels of sex hormones present and circulating in the bodies of pregnant women could have a negative impact on the neurons in the parts of the brain responsible for spatial memory - particularly the hippocampus.

"We know for sure that sex steroids at high levels can have damaging effects on neurons," said Ms. Farrar. She did add that it is impossible to know if this is the case based on this study alone.

"We can't really check to see what's happening, so it's pretty difficult really," she said. "We can only speculate that it could be the sex steroid levels that are affecting cognitive function."

Another Point of View on Pregnancy Brain

Ros Crawley, PhD, a researcher at the University of Sunderland in the UK said that her study in 2008 that compared pregnant to non-pregnant women on 15 sensitive tests of memory and attention found little difference between them. She didn't say there were no differences in women's cognitive skills when they're pregnant, "But the differences are not consistent with the degree of self-reported deterioration that pregnant women perceive."

She went on to suggest that perhaps pregnant women have internalized a societal stereotype that suggests they will become more forgetful and absentminded when they are pregnant.

"It is time that society questions the stereotype of cognitive decline in pregnancy," was her bottom line.

Pregnancy brings all kinds of new and strange occurrences with it. Read about the various pregnancy symptoms and how to treat them.

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