The Maternal Brain

Kinsley CH, Lambert KG.

Sci Am. 2006 Jan;294(1):72-9.


Mothers are made, not born. Virtually all female mammals, from rats to monkeys to humans, undergo fundamental behavioral changes during pregnancy and motherhood. What was once a largely self-directed organism devoted to its own needs and survival becomes one focused on the care and well-being of its offspring. Although scientists have long observed and marveled at this transition, only now are they beginning to understand what causes it. New research indicates that the dramatic hormonal fluctuations that occur during pregnancy, birth and lactation may remodel the female brain, increasing the size of neurons in some regions and producing structural changes in others.

Some of these sites are involved in regulating maternal behaviors such as building nests, grooming young and protecting them from predators. Other affected regions, though, control memory, learning, and responses to fear and stress. Recent experiments have shown that mother rats outperform virgins in navigating mazes and capturing prey. In addition to motivating females toward caring for their offspring, the hormone-induced brain changes may enhance a mother rat’s foraging abilities, giving her pups a better chance of survival. What is more, the cognitive benefits appear to be long-lasting, persisting until the mother rats enter old age.

Although studies of this phenomenon have so far focused on rodents, it is likely that human females also gain long-lasting mental benefits from motherhood. Most mammals share similar maternal behaviors, which are probably controlled by the same brain regions in both humans and rats. In fact, some researchers have suggested that the development of maternal behavior was one of the main drivers for the evolution of the mammalian brain. As mammals arose from their reptile forebears, their reproductive strategy shifted from drop-the-eggsand-flee to defend-the-nest, and the selective advantages of the latter approach may have favored the emergence of hormonal brain changes and the resulting beneficial behaviors. The hand—or paw—that rocks the cradle indeed rules the world.

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