'Baby brain' is real, Australian researchers find

Alina Tooley never considered herself a forgetful person - then she got pregnant, and found herself putting the margarine away in the pantry instead of the fridge.

"Baby brain," she says, explaining the vagueness and memory lapses.

The 42-year-old recently spent almost an hour wandering through the Chadstone Shopping Centre car park in Melbourne as it heaved with Christmas shoppers, looking for her lost vehicle.

Even when she eventually did find it, on the verge of tears, she could not conjure any memory of ever parking it there.

"I laugh about it now, but at the time it was just so annoying," Ms Tooley said.

"I literally had no idea where the car was.

"It was just blank."

Many people who have been pregnant would recognise the feeling.

While some academics have dismissed "baby brain" as a myth, there is now a growing body of scientific research that suggests it is a real phenomenon.

The latest study, out of Deakin University, led by PhD candidate Sasha Davies, is the largest statistical analysis on the subject.

It looked at 20 studies involving 709 pregnant and 521 non-pregnant women and found significant declines in women's cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning (which includes multi-tasking), particularly in the last three months of the pregnancy.

Researcher, Associate Professor Linda Byrne, said the largest impact was to women's memories, backing up anecdotal reports over the ages of increased forgetfulness in pregnant women, such as missed appointments.

"We are talking about an effect that will be noticeable to the women themselves and it may even be noticeable to people that are close to them," she said.

"A woman might find that suddenly she has to make notes about things in order remember appointments, or do extra work to remember the things she used to be able to do automatically.

"In the other areas, it could be that they feel less sharp than usual."

However, the researchers stressed the changes were unlikely to be noticed by people not familiar with the woman, or result in significant consequences, like a woman not being able to perform their job properly.

"Performance remained within the normal ranges of general cognitive function and memory," the study, published in The Medical Journal of Australia, concluded.

Meanwhile, some woman may not experience any symptoms at all, Professor Byrne, a psychologist and neuroscientist, said.

She said "baby brain" shouldn't be cause for concern, rather it was evidence of "biological priming", the body preparing itself for motherhood.

In 2016, a European study involving 25 first-time mums found that pregnancy reduces the grey matter volume in parts of the brain associated with social cognition, theorising the changes helped a woman bond with her baby.

This year the Deakin researchers are continuing their work, with an aim to find out whether people's cognition goes back to normal after giving birth. They also say more work needs to be done into how the symptoms of "baby brain" affect women's day-to-day life.

Deakin University's School of Psychology is recruiting women who are planning a pregnancy, or in their first trimester, for continued research.

To find out more visit www.babybrainresearch.com.

This story 'Baby brain' is real, Australian researchers find first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.