Inside a mother’s brain

Ever since our first child was born, everything changed. Becoming a mother for the first time, turns out, can be quite an overwhelming experience. You discover things about yourself you never knew existed. Some of the most stark differences also happen to be quite intimate and emotional. It is not surprising to learn that they have a strong neurological component.

Even before the kid is born, pregnancy alters the brain structure of women. Scientists have been observing the behavioral changes for centuries. But it is not until very recently have they been able to link the way women act with the brain activity in the midbrain, prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes and more. The gray matter in their brains becomes concentrated. There is an uptake in activity in the regions of the brain that control anxiety, empathy and social interaction. These changes are prompted by the hormonal changes and are a part of nature’s design to help the mother bond with her baby. The maternal feelings like fierce protectiveness, constant worry and overwhelming love all start as chemical reactions in their brains.

Scientists have tried to map the brain of pregnant women to understand the reason behind postpartum depression and anxiety. It is no secret that new mothers tend to constantly worry about things that are beyond their control. Scientists have discovered that there is growth in those regions of the brain which are involved in empathy, emotional regulation and maternal motivation. The latter is closely related to obsessive maternal behaviors. In humans and animals, the desire to take care of a newborn is the strongest emotion in the period following the pregnancy.

Increased activity in the amygdala – Amygdala is responsible for processing memory as well as driving emotional reactions like anxiety, fear and aggression. Increased activity in the region makes mothers extremely sensitive to the needs of their baby. This is accompanied by a flush of hormones that attach to more receptors in the area and create a positive feedback that motivates mothering. It is a no-brainer that the rewired circuitry dictates almost all aspects of a mother’s behavior right down to the sugary way she talks to the infant to her extra care and attention, and even the unconditional affection she has for the baby. Damage to the amygdala can cause depression in mothers. This implies that a healthy activity in the amygdala is tied to fewer instances of depression and lower anxiety levels.

Hormonal flow – The activity in the amygdala is also greatly influenced by the hormones that are flowing to the region. It has a large number of receptors which respond to chemicals like oxytocin. The level of oxytocin surges dramatically during the pregnancy and just after, across all mammals. It is directly proportional to the level of the mother’s involvement in the care of her child. There is also a boost in oxytocin levels whenever mothers look at the faces of their babies or when the babies coo, cry or snuggle. Breastfeeding mothers are also more in tune with the responses of their baby although there has been no conclusive study linking this to oxytocin levels

Affiliative circuits – Becoming parents for the first time is similar to the first time you fall in love with someone. The networks in the brain which become sensitized are the same ones involved in social salience and vigilance. The dopamine networks also become sensitive which causes the mother’s brain to incentivize taking care of the infant. This is very similar to the social bonding changes which occur between people who fall in love. In fact, the same circuits are responsible for drawing mothers to the smell of their babies.

Happy mother’s day, all you mom’s out there!

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