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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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