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Recent studies at Monash University are beginning to understand the long-term impacts of ‘baby-brain’ and how the hormonal changes that take place in a mother’s brain can benefit women later in life.

Researchers say that areas of the brain responsible for empathy and theory of mind – the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings or needs – are fine-tuned to support the behavioural tasks of motherhood.

These skills are important for providing appropriate care, particularly for pre-verbal infants, with mothers needing to accurately identify and sensitively respond to their baby’s changing needs.

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Implications for later life

Two studies, published in PLOSONE and Cerebral Cortex, led by PhD candidate Winnie Orchard at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, show how these changes in the maternal brain endure into late-life.

The transition to parenthood represents a new developmental milestone for parents, who are required to rapidly learn new skills, with many having to juggle the needs of more than one child at different stages of dependency.

In these new studies, the structure and function of the maternal brain was investigated in women in their seventies and eighties. Findings showed that women who had parented more children showed younger patterns of brain function.

There were also benefits to memory ability, where mothers with more children showed better verbal memory performance.

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Motherhood protects the brain?

Ms Orchard said, ‘We show a consistent pattern across brain structure, function and cognition that suggests motherhood is neuroprotective for the ageing maternal brain.

‘The life-long experience of motherhood provides ongoing environmental complexity and demands, keeping mothers on their toes well into late-life,’ she said.

Researchers explained that the transition to motherhood is called ‘matrescence’, similar to ‘adolescence’, as pregnancy and the postpartum period prepare women for motherhood.

Just as the brain changes in adolescence, so it does in matrescence, yet the understanding of the changes to the brain itself is still in its infancy.

‘It is too early to say that motherhood is out-right beneficial for the ageing human brain,’ said Ms Orchard, ‘however our recent findings suggest that motherhood physically and functionally reshapes the brain for a lifetime.’

If you would like to know more about this research, check out the detailed story at Monash Lens.