Study: Mapping the effects of pregnancy on resting state brain activity, white matter microstructure, neural metabolite concentrations and grey matter architecture. Image Credit: Jezper/Shutterstock

What is the effect of pregnancy on brain activity at rest?

During pregnancy, women experience various changes in their bodies and behavior. A recent Nature Communication The study evaluated pre- and post-pregnancy brain scans to better understand changes in gray matter architecture, diffusion measures of neuronal metabolite concentration, and temporal coherence of neural networks. Additionally, the biological factors associated with these changes were assessed in this study.

Study: Mapping the effects of pregnancy on resting-state brain activity, white matter microstructure, neuronal metabolite concentrations, and gray matter architecture.  Image Credit: Jezper/Shutterstock
Study: Mapping the effects of pregnancy on resting-state brain activity, white matter microstructure, neuronal metabolite concentrations, and gray matter architecture. Image Credit: Jezper/Shutterstock


Pregnant women undergo a monumental transition related to a cascade of endocrine changes and various adaptive changes in the body. Almost all bodily systems change during pregnancy, and some physiological changes remain constant for decades after childbirth. Limited evidence has been documented on changes in the human brain during pregnancy and beyond.

Several non-human animal models have indicated a correlation between reproduction and brain plasticity. These studies indicated significant changes in the brain and behavior of mammals.

According to a recent study, pregnant women alter the gray matter structure of the human brain. The present study went further to analyze changes in pregnant women’s neuronal metabolite concentrations, neural network organization, and white matter microstructure using a comprehensive prospective study cohort.

About the study

In this study, four longitudinal experimental sessions were included and participants were followed from preconception to the end of the postpartum period. Analytical tools, such as diffusion-weighted imaging, anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), resting-state functional MRI acquisitions, and 1H nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, have been used to study the effect of pregnancy on human brain.

Changes in hormonal profiles were assessed to analyze the mechanism behind pregnancy-related neuroplasticity. Maternal hormone levels were determined using biological samples taken every four weeks of pregnancy. Participants’ sleep patterns and stress levels were also recorded.

Changes in brain scans over the study period were recorded in a table. Specific structural and functional brain plasticity has been observed that may contribute to maternal adaptability during pregnancy.


Compared to non-pregnant women, a distinct gray matter architecture was found in pregnant women. Reduced gray matter volume has been observed in pregnant women, affecting the anterior and posterior cortical midline and specific parts of the prefrontal and bilateral lateral temporal cortex.

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy, diffusion-weighted imaging, and resting-state functional MRI data revealed no significant differences in white matter diffusion parameters or volume between groups of pregnant women. and nulliparous (control). This finding indicates that a woman’s white matter anatomy remains stable throughout pregnancy.

Fluctuations in sex steroid hormones were selectively strong for certain components of the brain, i.e. steroid hormones affect brain gray matter much more than white matter structure. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy data revealed no changes in neuronal metabolite concentrations during pregnancy.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a group of highly coherent activated brains that remain highly active even without a specific task. Therefore, the DMN reflects the basic activity of an individual brain. It is also strongly engaged in higher-order social processes, such as social appraisal, social cognition, and empathy.

Women’s resting-state MRI data has deciphered the neural network organization of pregnant women. This analysis revealed a selective increase in DMN in pregnant women who were between sessions, compared to the control group. Although structural brain changes were greatest in DMN, frontoparietal brain regions associated with higher-order cognitive tasks (eg, cognitive functions) were also affected.

It is important for new mothers to focus on their baby’s needs and feelings and understand their emotions. Accordingly, several studies have indicated a functional change in the DMN. In addition, resting-state functional connectivity in mothers was related to maternal behavior.

The current study hypothesized that pregnancy-associated structural and functional changes in the DMN alter the neural structure of an individual, which prepares women for motherhood. Interestingly, neural changes in the DMN have been observed to be related to the degree of mother-infant bonding.

Some of the factors that determine pregnancy-related brain plasticity are pregnancy hormones. For example, estradiol levels, particularly during the third trimester, were associated with changes in brain structure. Sleep, osmotic effects, breastfeeding, stress, or type of delivery were not related to any structural or functional changes in the brain during pregnancy. The unprecedented exposure to estrogen during the last stage of pregnancy has been shown to affect pregnancy-related structural neuroplasticity.


Analytical data on pregnant women indicated structural and functional plasticity within the DMN, suggesting that mothers experience changes in the baseline state of the brain. Functional changes in the DMN have been associated with infant-directed processes, while structural changes in the brain are linked to preparatory behavior simulations. In the future, a wider range of potential regulatory factors (eg, nutrition, genetic markers, environmental changes, and exercise) need to be assessed to better understand their role in influencing brain processes during pregnancy.

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