A new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that giving birth causes the brains of mothers to grow in certain areas. The study compared brain size soon after birth with brain size months later and concluded that the gray matter of the brain increased by a significant amount. The specific areas of the brain that were affected deal with maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing, sensory integration, and reasoning and judgment. All of these areas are relevant to child-rearing (although you could make a case that every area of the brain is related in some fashion to child-rearing).
It shouldn’t be surprising that the female brain reacts to giving birth and caring for a child. After birth, females are flooded with hormones like estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, and first-time mothers are learning an entirely new set of skills, including surviving on little sleep, coming bolt awake at the first murmurings of a waking infant, and mastering the interpretation of baby cries to determine whether a child is starving, dealing with a poop-filled diaper, or just lonely for Mom’s smiling face.
Not surprisingly, the study did not include the impact of having a child on the brains of new fathers. My guess would be that any such study would conclude that the birth of a child does nothing to divert the male brain from its long, gradual slide to eventual senility. While maternal brains respond energetically to new stimuli, sluggish paternal brains just hope to get some sleep.
The BBC today has an interesting story on experiments concerning the operation of the brain. The experiments tracked signals between different parts of the brains of rats. They showed that different parts of the brain were unexpectedly communicating with each other and that information looped back rather than proceeding in rigid lines of communication. The BBC story notes that the study and the apparently interconnected nature of the brain “could prove to be a powerful tool in analysing how the brain processes information.”
I wonder, however, whether the study has significantly broader implications. Recently I read a fascinating book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. The basic concept underlying that book is called neuroplasticity, and it posits that the brain is not “hard-wired” like the motherboard of a computer, but rather is a flexible collection of cells that can serve different functions. The encouraging message of neuroplasticity is that people who suffer brain dysfunction due to strokes, blunt trauma, or other forms of injury are not inevitably doomed to live the rest of their lives unable to walk or talk. Instead, the book reports on instances where, through carefully planned tasks, repetitive actions, and determination, people have been able to reroute their brain functions through healthy cells and regain their lost powers of speech and movement. The study that is the subject of the BBC reports, by demonstrating that the brain does not function in a rigid “top-down” fashion, seems to further confirm the accuracy of the concept of neuroplasticity.
What does it mean for those of us who haven’t suffered brain dysfunction? The lesson is that you can work to enhance mental acuity and balance as you age by taking steps to make sure that the brain and nerve connections stay sharp. Do a crossword puzzle or a math problem. Try to learn a new foreign language. Walk barefoot around your yard and neighborhood. And if you feel yourself slipping, don’t accept it with a sigh of resignation. Instead, view it is a challenge to be overcome — because that is exactly what it is.
NPR has an interesting story today about Einstein’s brain, its post-autopsy journeys, and its role in discoveries about glial cells and how the human brain works. Einstein, who seemed possessed of a good sense of humor and a fair amount of whimsy, probably would have enjoyed the tale.