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Brain Coach Answers: Is “placenta brain” real? I can’t remember anything ever since I got pregnant!

Q: Is “placenta brain” real? I am 6 months pregnant and can’t remember anything ever since I got pregnant!

A: Yes, in the third trimester.

Women everywhere have complained that they feel “out of it” or extremely absent-minded while they’re pregnant, and books, doctors, midwives, etc. have all warned expectant mothers about feeling quite scattered, distracted, and unfocused. But, like any interesting topic, it’s not entirely clear what the real answer is.

According to the Wayne State University School of Medicine Scribe:

Pamela Keenan, PhD has shown that women in their third trimester of pregnancy experience forgetfulness approximately 15 percent more than the average person. Although there have been many anecdotal reports about forgetfulness during pregnancy, few studies have looked at the scientific basis and mechanisms responsible for this complaint. According to studies by Dr. Keenan, memory recall only decreased in the third trimester of pregnancy, when estrogen levels peaked. Furthermore, the third trimester was also characterized by greater levels of reported anxiety and depression.

The published study can be found here. Possible culprits for the memory loss could be high levels of oxytocin and/or cortisol, both of which can impair learning and memory functions.

On the flip side, Ros Crawley, PhD from the University of Sunderland says between 50% to 80% of pregnant women believe they have some problems with memory or thinking. But, when she tested them, she could not find pervasive, reliable differences. This lack of a finding could just mean the right tests weren’t chosen, that particular group of women did not show the same third trimester decline, the deficits are more specific and/or variable, or a number of other possibilities. She concludes

that there is a stereotype of cognitive impairment in pregnancy and that, while there is no evidence for a pervasive deterioration in cognitive ability, there may be changes in some specific aspects of cognitive processing.

To round out the discussion, another recent study found motherhood can actually facilitate lifelong learning and memory as well as protect against age-related cognitive decline by combining natural hormonal exposure with a lot of mental stimulation from the new baby.

So where does this leave us? Obviously, more research needs to be done to clarify what is going on and what mechanisms are affected. Fatigue, depression, and hormones like oxytocin and cortisol can certainly impair cognitive function. Yet estrogen can be neuroprotective. It would also be interesting to more clearly understand which cognitive processes are affected, and if that is consistent across women or highly variable. It seems likely that decreased attention is the underlying issue. The good news is that attention can be trained and improved so that it doesn’t require so much conscious effort.

What can you do?

  • Get enough rest so that you can pay better attention to what’s going on around you.
  • Eat well to fuel your body and further fight fatigue. Don’t forget that you’re eating for two. (as if you could!)
  • Talk to your doctor about what exercise is right for you at each stage of your pregnancy. Generally, don’t start or stop exercising just because you’re pregnant. But do confirm with your doctor in case you have special circumstances.
  • Surround yourself with loved ones because it feels nice and also helps reduce stress, which in turn helps your memory and attention.
  • Stay mentally active – read, play games, do puzzles, get the latest sudoku book, or try a computerized training program.

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2 Responses

  1. eleanor says:

    I knew a woman who played the violin, and when she got pregnant she could no longer read music! After she had the baby everything went back to normal

  2. Caroline says:

    I’m glad everything returned to normal post delivery! There are enough anecdotal stories to feel like something is going on, but just may be highly individual and vary even within the individual by a number of factors (nutrition, fatigue, physical exercise, stress, hormone levels, mood, etc.).

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