Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Cognitive Impairment During Pregnancy: Myth or Reality?

Pregnant women experience grey matter volume reductions in brain regions closely tied to the processing of social information, 
such as decoding infant facial expressions and promoting healthy bonding between mother and baby. Credit: CareyHope/iStockphoto

Pregnant women experience grey matter volume reductions in brain regions closely tied to the processing of social information, such as decoding infant facial expressions and promoting healthy bonding between mother and baby. Credit: CareyHope/iStockphoto

By Sasha Davies

While reports of cognitive decline throughout pregnancy are widespread, evidence has been inconclusive. Until now.

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“Baby brain” refers to the cognitive decline reported by as many as four out of five pregnant women. Having long been recognised in midwifery folklore, symptoms often include poorer concentration, increased absentmindedness, and feelings of mental “fogginess”, with memory problems being the most frequently reported cognitive complaint during pregnancy.

The impact of these cognitive changes can range from minor day-to-day annoyances to severe disruptions to their personal and professional lives. In personal accounts of this phenomenon, pregnant women have described a variety of consequences including forgetting words mid-sentence, frequently forgetting appointments and, in one severe case, being unable to return to work due to serious memory problems.

However, scientific results from standardised objective tasks testing specific aspects of cognitive performance affected by pregnancy have given only inconsistent results. For example, one small early review of seven published studies from 1969–93 found a significant impairment in pregnant women’s cognitive performance in only half of the tasks tested, with memory being the most affected. However, the authors noted that the results were equivocal across the included studies, and that these studies sometimes did not all use non-pregnant women for comparison.

More recently, an Australian review and meta-...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.