Motherhood May Permanently Alter a Woman's Brain

First Posted: May 27, 2015 08:01 PM EDT

It turns out that motherhood may completely alter women's brains. Scientists have found that hormone therapy (HT) may have some variable results on women because women respond differently depending whether or not they had children.

"Our most recent research shows that previous motherhood alters cognition and neuroplasticity in response to hormone therapy, demonstrating that motherhood permanently alters the brain," said Liisa Galea, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Hormone therapy is often prescribed to alleviate some of the symptoms of menopause. However, HT has variable effects on brain function. In all, there are three forms of estrogens used in the treatment: estradiol, estrone and estriol. Estradiol is the most potent of estrogens, and is the predominant form in young women, while estrone is a weaker estrogen and is the predominant form in post-menopausal women.

In this case, the researchers examined how estradiol and estrone affect neuroplasticity. They focused on one specific brain region, called the hippocampus, which has important roles in memory and spatial ability. They found that chronic estradiol, but not chronic estrone, significantly increased the survival of new neurons and increased the expression of zif268, a protein involved in neuroplasticity.

The researchers also discovered that estrone-based HT improved learning in middle-aged rats that had not experienced motherhood, but impaired learning in rats that had experienced motherhood of the same age.

"Hormones have a profound impact on our mind," said Galea. "Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman. Our results argue that these factors should be taken into account when treating brain disorders in women."

The findings were presented at the 9th Annual Canadian Neuroscience Meeting.

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