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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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