Is 'mum brain' real?

14 May 2023 08:30am
Mothers can relate well to the term "mum brain" where it is often associated with forgetfulness, or brain fog.
Mothers can relate well to the term "mum brain" where it is often associated with forgetfulness, or brain fog.

After giving birth to my first child, I often experienced forgetfulness. I mismanaged things on my to-do list, I would lose my train of thought mid conversation, I’d forget where I put my keys, and the list goes on.

Mothers are no strangers to these episodes of forgetfulness or brain fog, often calling it “mum brain”. Sometimes we laugh it off, but other times it can be quite unsettling.

Having gone through many brain fog episodes and countless “where did I put my.....?” questions to my husband, I wondered if “mum brain” was in fact real and not just a fictional condition or if I was just overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood.

Is motherhood really associated with a decline in cognitive abilities?

While the physical changes that women go through during pregnancy is widely discussed, becoming a mother does have an impact on your cognitive function too, experts say.

Dr Kaarthig Ganesamoorthy from Dr. Tan & Partners Clinic, who also sits on the panel doctors at Motherhood Parenting Super App, Motherhood Expert Explain Programme and Ask Me Dr Programme said the term ‘mum brain’ is almost a rite of passage, giving a name to the memory loss and brain fog that so many pregnant and postpartum women report.

Dr Kaarthig Ganesamoorthy
Dr Kaarthig Ganesamoorthy

“Studies show that up to 80 per cent of pregnant women report a degree of subjective memory loss. This indicates that it is a scientific change and not just a woman being overwhelmed by the challenges of motherhood - as significant as they are," said Dr Kaarthig.

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Meanwhile, Sunway Medical Centre Velocity (SMCV) Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Ryan Tee Chun Keat said there are changes that happen to mothers during pregnancy whereby there are structural changes to her brain and hormonal changes in her body.

“Pregnancy and motherhood does affect the brain. Research has shown that there is a loss of grey matter volume in the brain during pregnancy.

The loss in the grey matter volume in the brain are at the areas associated with social cognition which is the area responsible for social interaction. The loss in the grey matter is postulated to enhance a mother’s attachment to her baby,” he said.

Stress can also lead to reduction in cognitive function such as poor concentration and memory, he added.

“Having a child can be rewarding and happy, however it can also be a potentially stressful period for a lot of mothers.

“The cognitive function might be affected further if a mother does not have adequate sleep and rest,” he said.

Sunway Medical Centre Velocity (SMCV) Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Ryan Tee Chun Keat
Sunway Medical Centre Velocity (SMCV) Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Ryan Tee Chun Keat

How long does the mum brain last? Five years later and now with two kids in tow, I am still forgetful (albeit slightly better compared to my early days of motherhood).

Dr Kaarthig said the forgetfulness in a pregnant woman is well documented but the exact cause of this and its lasting impact is still being extensively researched.

“Studies have shown that the gray matter loss is greatest after delivery and lasts at least till two years after.

“In today’s age of academia, these studies could be further continued and we may have better understanding of the long term effects of pregnancy on brain development.”

Dr Ryan also said that the current available evidence does not provide enough information for doctors to make a conclusion.

“However, partial recovery in the volume in the hippocampus occurs after two years,” he said.

Is it possible to prevent maternal brain change?

“No. Pregnancy is a time where significant hormone driven physiological and physical changes. As with other parameters like blood volume and hormone levels, the brain changes are not avoidable,” said Dr Kaarthig.

He referenced a study by a professor called Professor Hoekzema from Spain who had a team that conducted a study where they scanned women, and pregnant mothers throughout and following their deliveries.

“At the two year interval, MRI scans of the brain of these women showed that the grey matter loss remained. The only part of the brain that showed progression from the pregnancy state was the hippocampus (where we store long term memory).

“The changes were so consistent that a computer algorithm could predict with 100% accuracy whether a woman had been pregnant prior solely from just reviewing the MRI scans,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Ryan said the changes that occur in the maternal brain is a natural process.

“A mother’s brain undergoes neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability to change, reorgnise and grow neural networks during prgenancy and the postpartum period. These changes are important and helpful for a woman in transitioning to motherhood,” he said.

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