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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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You Can Sip Coffee and Play Games While This Helmet Scans Your Brain
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Brain scanning is a delicate operation, one that typically involves staying very still. Researchers use imaging techniques like magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging to get an idea of how the brain functions and what neurons are being activated, but it's not an easy task. Current scanners are huge, requiring patients to sit unmoving inside them, lest their head movements mess up the data. There may soon be a better way—one that would allow patients to act normally while still getting reliable data.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK report in Nature that they've developed a prototype brain scanner that can be worn like a helmet, one that can generate reliable data even if the subject moves.

It uses lightweight quantum magnetic-field sensors held against the scalp by a 3D-printed helmet that's custom-made for the patient. For the study, one of the researchers volunteered to be the patient and was fitted with a white plastic helmet that looks kind of like a cross between a Roman Centurion helmet and a Jason Voorhees Halloween mask. She was positioned between two large panels equipped with electromagnetic coils that cancel out the Earth's magnetic field so that it doesn't interfere with the magnetic data picked up from the brain. As long as the patient stayed between the panels, she was free to move—nod her head, stretch, drink coffee, and bounce a ball with a paddle—all while the scanner picked up data about on par with what a traditional scanner (seen below) might gather.

A man sits inside an MEG scanner.
Wellcome

The more flexible scanning system is exciting for a number of reasons, including that it would allow squirmy children to have their brains scanned easily. Since patients can move around, it could measure brain function in more natural situations, while they're moving or socializing, and allow patients with neurodegenerative or developmental disorders to get MEG scans.

The current helmet is just a prototype, and the researchers want to eventually build a more generic design that doesn't require custom fitting.

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Scientists Identify Cells in the Brain That Control Anxiety
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People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]

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