Pregnancy comes with a whole host of little-spoken-about symptoms that differ from woman to woman, from bloody gums and constipation to borderline nymphomania. But a particularly common one is so-called "baby brain", the mental fogginess that many women experience when they are expecting.
It has long been speculated that pregnancy impacts memory, and research has backed up this idea, but a new study helps to paint a much clearer picture of exactly how pregnancy affects a woman's brain. For one thing, it's not just memory that's impacted, but executive functioning, too, which includes attention, inhibition, decision-making and planning.
By looking at the results of 20 existing studies on pregnancy and the brain, researchers from Deakin University, who published their findings in the Medical Journal of Australia, were able to look at the cognitive functioning of 709 pregnant women and 521 non-pregnant women.
The study is the first of its kind to delve into how pregnancy impacts elements of cognition beyond memory, Sasha Davies, one of the study's authors, writes on The Conversation.
The key findings? Compared to non-pregnant women, pregnant women perform worse on tasks measuring attention, inhibition, decision-making and planning, as well as memory. One such test was the digit span test, in which women were asked to memorise numbers in a line.
Baby brain also affects women differently at various points of their pregnancy, the research suggested, with the third trimester being particularly tricky. The cognitive decline, which seemed to start in the first trimester, tended to stabilise between the middle and end of the pregnancy.
However, there's no need to fret if you're expecting. The researchers concluded that being pregnant doesn't dramatically impact everyday life (at least when it comes to performing mental tasks). While the women studied weren't as razor-sharp in some areas as usual, they still performed within the normal range and the changes are probably only be noticeable to close friends or family.
But the jury's still out on the causes of baby brain, unfortunately, and Davies says there's "a long way to go" before we're any clearer. For one thing, we still don't know whether – or for how long – the effects of baby brain last once the baby is born.
It's also unclear whether or not hormonal changes – like an increase in oestrogen, progesterone and oxytocin – play a role and/or what the impact of a myriad other factors involved in pregnancy may be, including morning sickness, disrupted sleep and mood changes. With all this change going on in their bodies, is it any wonder pregnant women are distracted?
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