Researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), the Gregorio Marañón Health Research Institute, and the Hospital del Mar Research Institute have conducted a literature review on the neurobiological adaptation that occurs during pregnancy and postpartum in humans and other animals. Their findings, published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, offer new insights into the changes in brain structure, hormonal evolution, and maternal behavior.
The researchers analyzed 174 articles and found that hormonal fluctuations, particularly estrogens, play a crucial role in triggering plasticity processes in the brain during pregnancy and the postpartum period. These plasticity processes involve changes in brain cell function, structure, and connectivity. However, further research is needed to better understand the specific types of plasticity processes involved in the transition to motherhood and how they impact maternal behavior.
One significant finding of the research is that pregnancy leads to morphological changes in the brain, particularly a reduction in gray matter volume in regions associated with social relations. These changes persist for at least two years after giving birth. It was also noted that fluctuations in hormones are consistently observed throughout different stages of maternity and postpartum.
The article identifies three essential factors in understanding the adaptation to motherhood in humans: estrogens as the main hormone candidates responsible for inducing brain changes, the brain circuit involved in social cognition as the specific region where these changes occur, and psychological changes necessary for the development of a mother-child relationship.
Based on their findings, the researchers suggest future research directions to further study human adaptation to motherhood. These include identifying the brain cell substrates involved in the observed changes and describing the mechanisms by which sexual hormones, particularly estrogens, contribute to these changes.
In conclusion, this review sheds light on the neurobiological processes underlying the transition to motherhood and highlights the importance of hormones, brain structure, and maternal behavior in this adaptation. The findings provide a roadmap for future research, offering avenues to explore the intricate relationship between hormones, brain changes, and maternal behavior.
– Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41583-023-00733-6