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Does pregnancy affect memory?
Baby Brain - fact or fiction?
Lots of women say that their memories suffer during pregnancy but is this anecdotal evidence backed up by research or is it a myth?
Keys are misplaced, phone numbers are forgotten, appointments are missed and strange items purchased without any memory of the event. Many women (and their partners) will recognise these experiences as symptoms of so-called 'baby brain'. During her first pregnancy broadcaster Mariella Frostrup found that "almost everything emptied out of my head for a few months and it was only just coming back when I fell pregnant again, so I was a bit of a casualty of two pregnancies in three years!". Wine writer Jilly Goolden remembers that, during her pregnancy, much of her time was spent standing in the supermarket paralysed by the "the inability to chose between a cabbage and a Brussel sprout."
So does research support the anecdotal evidence? Or is baby brain, officially at least, just a myth? Well, firstly, there isn't a vast amount of data on the subject. What there is comes down on both sides, with some research claiming that pregnant women perform just as well as non-pregnant women in memory tests whilst others claim the opposite.
The baby is eating my brain!
One piece of research from 1997 - now infamous - was unintentionally responsible for a mass frenzy of tabloid interest claiming that here, at last, was scientific proof that pregnancy caused "porridge brain". An interesting, sober and preliminary study about a change in women's brain volume after delivery, conducted by obstetric anaesthetist Anita Holdcroft of the Royal post-Graduate Medical School in London, was reported as 'Health Warning: Having a Baby Can Shrink Your Brain' by the Daily Mirror, and as 'Just As We Thought, Pregnant Women Do Lose Their Minds!' by the Daily Mail.
Unfortunately, the results had been wildly misinterpreted. The study, which looked at just ten women, showed that brain volume increased in the six months after delivery, implying that it was returning to a normal non-pregnant size. Holdcroft also reported that the original decrease was down to the volume of the brain cells decreasing, not the number of cells. In other words, the pregnant women were not losing part of their brain but overall volume was decreasing during pregnancy. Holdcroft added that more research was needed, but that this change could be due to there being less water in the cells, or due to the combined increased nutritional requirement of having to feed mother and child. Nevertheless, lots of (usually female) journalists decided here lay the proof that it's all down to pregnancy - which only served to strengthen the myth. No matter that the study didn't link the change in size to memory loss - nor any cognitive brain function.
For a more comprehensive assessment of the evidence, Brett and Baxondale (2003) reviewed both the subjective and objective research there was on the issue. Subjective studies - where pregnant women are asked about any symptoms like forgetfulness - reported overwhelmingly that a significant proportion of women complained of having memory problems, between 50 percent and 80 percent. But memory loss wasn't the only symptom. Confusion, stress, anxiety, poor concentration and increased clumsiness were also part of the general experience, especially in the second or third trimesters.
This sounds impressive but Brett and Baxondale also found that in subjective studies, it seemed clear that more symptoms were reported by those women who were feeling most anxious and stressed by their pregnancies. Happier mums-to-be seemed to have fewer symptoms.
So does objective research into pregnancy and memory loss provide a clearer picture? Well, maybe. Though a number of studies seemed to suggest a definite link between memory deficits and pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester, the authors pointed out that due to the complex nature of memory, it's important to pay careful attention to what type of test is being given, and how the test is carried out, in order to draw any reasonable conclusions about the 'baby brain' phenomenon.
Forgetful or distracted?
Perhaps the most reliable evidence is also the most objective - levels of certain hormones in the body of pregnant women, notably oestrogen and progesterone, skyrocket. Both are linked to memory function - perhaps these are a biological cause of the symptoms many women experience?
Most women insist that pregnancy affects memory and only a fool would argue with them. Objectively, though, the evidence to support that is weak. It doesn't mean the women are wrong, but the methods used to answer the question might be.
Brett and Baxondale prefer to imply that the experience of memory loss is probably, in part, down to the increased psychological stresses of being pregnant. And that this may have some biological underpinnings, because the two main hormones produced in pregnancy are known to have effects on memory. But, studies also show that only certain kinds of memory seem to be affected - working memory and recall (the latter is the part that helps us find names, dates, shopping lists etc).
Perhaps, as some recent studies suggest, baby brain is more down to neurological overload brought on by pregnancy, rather than the biological consequences of being pregnant? All the questions and concerns raised by pregnancy are, after all, far more important than remembering what you were supposed to buy for dinner or where you parked the car. Paying less attention to the more mundane events of life is how many people often react to depression, a bereavement, stress, or just the demands of a hectic lifestyle.
Rami (website team)