She then followed with, “I was going to ask you to explain something else to me, but I totally forgot what it was.”
Does “pregnancy brain” actually exist? There’s no doubt that many changes are happening to a woman’s body during pregnancy, but how do these changes affect (or originate in) the brain? To answer my friend’s question – and in an effort to address whatever else she was forgetting at the time – here is Part 1 of my expectant mom’s guide to the crazy neuroscience of pregnancy.
What is morning sickness?
More than half – perhaps up to 90% – of pregnant women experience nausea or vomiting to some degree, particularly in the morning. Thrust into the limelight as a result of Kate Middleton’s hospitalizations, around 1% of pregnant women experience more severe, prolonged morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum, which can result in dehydration, weight loss, and require serious medical attention. For most women, morning sickness goes away after around 18 weeks.
The cause of morning sickness isn’t entirely clear. The most popular theory is that morning sickness is the body’s reaction to the increase in the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropic (hCG). Studies have shown a temporal relationship between hCG and morning sickness, meaning that levels of hCG in the bloodstream and frequency of vomiting appear to peak at the same time. The correlation is interesting, but it doesn’t explain why morning sickness happens.
We do know that the first trimester is an important time in fetal development. The central nervous system critically forms during this time, and this delicate process is highly susceptible to disruption by toxins circulating in the mother’s bloodstream. A more recent theory states that vomiting during early pregnancy serves a beneficial function by ridding the body of food that may unsettle this important developmental stage.
Area postrema, labelled 3rd from the bottom.
Gray's Anatomy (Wikimedia Commons)
This “toxin theory” is supported by several pieces of evidence, including the fact that morning sickness is more common in societies with “risky foods,” that it only occurs in humans (we have very broad diets, after all), and that more severe morning sickness is associated with lower rates of miscarriage. Many women also naturally tend to be more “turned off” to eating meat, fish, and certain plants during this time.
Of course, these so-called toxins are really not toxic at all to healthy adult women, and the placenta does a superb job of filtering out waste and fighting infection. Rather, morning sickness is likely more associated with foods prone to microorganisms in the times before refrigeration (like meats), or bitter vegetables, the taste of which signaled “poison!” to our early human ancestors. It’s a sensitive system, and despite how crappy it makes mom feel, morning sickness likely provides an evolutionary advantage for the baby’s development.
Why does my sense of smell become so much stronger?
|Sira Hanchana (Flickr)|
A few studies have examined scent detection thresholds (the smallest volume of air that still results in odor detection) in pregnant versus non-pregnant women. Interestingly, though, even in a study where six different scents were tested, there was no difference in detection threshold between the two groups.
Given the inconsistency between subjective and objective reports on hyperosmia, research suggests that pregnant women don’t necessarily have a stronger sense of smell, but are perhaps better at identifying smells. A recent study found that pregnant women were more likely to rate a variety of smells as significantly less pleasant than non-pregnant women. Early in pregnancy – much like the body rejects foods that may be toxic to the developing fetus – it appears that women have a greater “disgust sensitivity” that motivates them to avoid other possible contaminants. That may explain why things like cigarette smoke and spoiled food become particularly pungent.
Like with morning sickness, there’s a link between the timing of hCG levels and when a woman’s odor perception changes. Interestingly, it’s thought that these hormonal changes aren’t affecting our noses, When a Swedish research group presented scents to pregnant and non-pregnant women and measured their brains’ responses, they found a larger amplitude and shorter latency in the P300 wave of pregnant women, a voltage change thought to reflect neural processes related to a person’s assessment and evaluation of an event. This suggests that hormonal changes may actually be acting on higher-order cognitive processes related to our perception of odors.
Why did I become so forgetful?
While a number of women – like my friend – complain that pregnancy has made them more forgetful than usual, the research on this topic is mixed. Like most changes that occur during pregnancy, hormonal fluctuations are an obvious possible culprit. Some women report no cognitive changes whatsoever during pregnancy.
|Moyan Brenn (Flickr)|
In a study published last year, Diane Farrar and colleagues administered a spatial recognition memory task to non-pregnant women, as well as in women during each trimester of their pregnancy. Compared to their first trimester, pregnant women scored, on average, 11.7% lower on the memory tasks with each subsequent trimester. When the researchers compared memory test scores to levels of six different hormones measured from blood plasma, however, there was no association.
|Gray's Anatomy (Wikimedia Commons)|
Some have postulated that sleep deprivation or the newfound stress of dealing with a major life change as possible contributors to absentmindedness during pregnancy. Some research suggests that there’s a cultural expectation at play, as the popular concept of “pregnancy brain” may simply make women more aware of their everyday slip-ups. A change in daily routine with a new pregnancy might disrupt some women’s memory abilities, too.
Although there’s a lot we don’t know about all the crazy changes that happen during pregnancy, one thing is clear: babies do a great job of making their presence known well before they come kicking and screaming into the world.
Stay tuned for The Pregnant Brain: Part 2, which will cover clumsiness, cravings, and moodiness. If there’s anything else you’d like me to write about, let me know in the comments!