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A recent study is showing that there’s truth to the statement that pregnancy causes changes in the brain. A study done on mice indicated that hormone shifts during pregnancy affected the circuits of the brain that are involved in parenting. The study also showed that female mice are not born with a mothering instinct, and aren’t really interested in babies or taking care of them until they mate. Female mice that haven’t yet mated don’t show interest in pups that belong to other female mice, or they display only low-level instincts.
Once they become pregnant, though, the hormones that come along with their pregnancy cause changes to the brain’s neural networks that are associated with taking good care of their young. The biggest changes to these circuits is in making them highly responsive to both the sounds and smells of baby mice. Neurons also developed some new connections, so the parenting circuits were more streamlined and worked more efficiently during and after pregnancy.
Experimenting showed that activating the same hormonal receptors in mice that hadn’t yet mated caused them to start acting like mothers, but turning off the activation in mice who had pups meant that they wouldn’t even try to feed or care for them. This is a strong indication that pregnancy really does change the way the brain is wired, and that helps prepare mice to care for their young, and to want to provide that care.
The human brain is much more complex than the brain of a mouse, of course, and human beings also observe parenting behaviors and experience them long before they would have children of their own. However, most pregnant women will say that their brain hasn’t been the same since they had children, and it’s quite possible that they’re right on a genetic and hormonal level.
More studies will be needed, including additional consideration as to whether fathers experience changes in their brains when they have children. Past studies have indicated that fathers have a decrease in testosterone after their children are born, which could cause them to settle into the parenting role.
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