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‘Pregnancy Brain’ Is Real, But It’s Not What We Thought

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Scientists say pregnancy creates lasting changes in women’s brains that may help prepare them for motherhood. They published their findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“Pregnancy involves radical hormone surges and biological adaptations,” the authors write. “However, the effects of pregnancy on the human brain are virtually unknown.”

To investigate these effects, neuroscientists recruited couples who were trying to conceive for the first time and gave them brain scans. Some of the couples became parents and some did not, which created a sort of built-in control group. Once the babies were born, the researchers scanned participants’ brains; two years later, they did it again.

The scans revealed a clear difference between the two groups. New moms’ brains were missing something: a substantial amount of gray matter in the region associated with socialization. The disparity between the two groups’ brains were so significant that the researchers could spot which women had been pregnant just by looking at their scans.

But far from being a problem, the researchers say, this reduction in gray matter may actually be the brain’s way of paving the way for a strong mother-child relationship. The researchers found no memory loss or other cognitive problems. In other words, the gray matter loss isn’t brain damage. It’s tidying up in preparation for the challenging new cognitive work of motherhood.

To confirm this idea, the scientists gave the new moms another round of brain scans, this time while the women looked at pictures of their babies and babies they’d never seen before. Sure enough, the tidied-up portions of the women’s brains were especially active as they gazed on their own offspring. The more gray matter lost, the stronger the connection.

Two years after giving birth, new moms’ brains were still lighter on gray matter in that region than they had been before they became pregnant.

Co-author Oscar Vilarroya is a neuroscientist at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain. “The findings point to an adaptive process related to the benefits of better detecting the needs of the child, such as identifying the newborn's emotional state,” he said in a statement. “Moreover, they provide primary clues regarding the neural basis of motherhood, perinatal mental health and brain plasticity in general."

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Anesthesia May Not Work the Way We Thought It Did
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You lie back, and a nurse fits a mask over your face. Somebody tells you to count backward from 100. Your eyelids grow heavy. The next thing you know, you’re waking up. We thought we knew why this happens, but new research published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology suggests we may have had it wrong.

The brains of people on general anesthesia are far quieter than those of folks who haven’t been drugged. Previous studies have suggested that this quieting happens when anesthesia interferes with conversations, or couplings, between different parts of our brain. Less information is exchanged, and the volume of the conversation drops.

It seemed like a solid enough explanation. But a team of German neuroscientists saw a possible flaw in the logic. The amount of information being exchanged often depends on the amount of information available, not on the strength of the connection.

To explore this puzzle further, they brought two female ferrets into the lab and hooked them up to brain activity monitors. (Ferret brains’ similarity to primates’ makes them a good lab substitute for humans, at least in initial studies.)

Both ferrets went through three rounds of anesthesia and recovery, receiving slightly more of the drug each time as the scientists watched their brains produce, process, and exchange information.

As in previous studies, the conversations in the ferrets’ brains were indeed more subdued while they were anesthetized. But it wasn’t interference that quieted their brains. The brain regions that ordinarily do the listening were just as active as usual. But the talkative brain regions seemed to have less to say. They were making and sending less information.

Lead author Patricia Wollstadt is a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging Center at Goethe University Frankfurt. "The relevance of this alternative explanation goes beyond anesthesia research,” she said in a statement, "since each and every examination of neuronal information transfer should categorically take into consideration how much information is available locally and is therefore also transferable."

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Why Coloring and Doodling Make Us Feel Good
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Quit your judging and give in. You know you want a coloring book, and now researchers know why. They published their findings in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.

Art therapy experts at Drexel University and The College of New Jersey wondered if there was a neurological basis for the relaxation-inducing powers of coloring, doodling, and drawing.

The best way to find out, they figured, would be to watch people’s brains as they tooled around on the page.

The researchers recruited 26 people, eight of whom self-identified as “artists.” They fitted each person with a special brain-imaging headband and gave them markers and paper. The participants then had three mini art sessions lasting three minutes: one each of doodling, coloring, and drawing whatever they felt like. Between sessions, they left the headbands on and rested their hands. Afterward, the researchers asked participants how they felt about each activity and about themselves.

As human experiments go, this one was pretty sweet for its participants, many of whom said the arts-and-crafts experiment made them feel like they had more good ideas and were better at solving problems afterward. But three minutes was not long enough, some said. They wanted more time.

Their brains seemed similarly into it. All three activities produced an increase in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, a region that plays a central part in the brain’s reward system. During rest periods, blood flow slowed until it reached normal resting rates.

Some people did enjoy the process more than others. The self-described artists actually reported finding the coloring portion of the experiment kind of stressful.

"I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media," lead author Girija Kaimal said in a statement. "They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time."

In general, though, Kaimal and her colleagues found that people enjoyed these basic low-pressure, creative tasks.

“Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgments of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not," she said. "We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biological proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves."

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