March 24th, 2010
12:02 PM ET

Study links elevated hormones, ‘preggo brain’

By Ashley Fantz
CNNHealth.com writer

Elevated hormones may explain why many women complain they experience forgetfulness during pregnancy, new research shows.

Recalled anecdotally for years – often referred to as “preg head” or “preggo brain” – women in their second and third trimester report problems with their spatial memory. They say they forget where they parked their car or left their keys.

“Women in general have been the butt of jokes that we have trouble finding our way around, navigating, and that has been a negative stereotype which I’ve always found to be denigrating,” said Diane Farrar, a midwife who also has a psychology degree. She spearheaded the study with University of Bradford and the Bradford Institute for Health. “I wanted to find out if there was scientific basis for the negativity where it concerned pregnant women.”

Farrar gathered two groups of women: 24 who were not pregnant and had no intention of becoming pregnant and 23 who were pregnant. She followed the pregnant group throughout the duration of their pregnancy and three months after birth.

All women were given computer-based spatial memory tests. The tests involved following a square moving on the screen and the women were asked to remember its location, Farrar said. At one point, the square moved into two boxes. One box moved to distract the eye while the square kept moving.

In addition to spatial memory, their mood, attention-capacity and anxiety level were measured, and their hormone levels were recorded.

The pregnant women scored 70 percent on the test. Women who were not pregnant scored 80 percent, according to the study.

“Altered hormone levels during pregnancy may affect brain regions involved in memory processing. Altered mood and increased anxiety, which may be due to altered hormone levels or pregnancy related worries, may also adversely affect memory function,” the study states. “More research is now needed to identify the neurological effects of pregnancy to help guide future research and provide information for women and those involved in maternity care.”

Pregnant women were also recorded to have more depressed moods and higher levels of anxiety than the other women, said Farrar.

“One has to keep in mind that there are factors at work here that pregnant have to deal with – loss of sleep, for example – and that’s going to affect how well their mind performs,” she said.

The good news is that spatial memory isn’t permanently hurt during pregnancy, Farrar told CNN.

“We found that memory function comes back,” she said. “Cognitive abilities will be what they were was before.”

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Tricia

    As a college student during the last trimesters of two pregnancies, I had sudden difficulty processing accounting problems. To this day (thirty years later, I have to refresh my memory on the parts of accounting I had studied during those months.

    The main thing that changed for me in the first trimester of my first pregnancy was that I suddenly had a fear of high places. I could not climb precarious outlooks or walk down pipelines as I had become accustomed. A good friend had the same experience. She was an avid mountaineer, an expert climber who was very comfortable repelling in very high places. On her first climb early in her pregnancy she relates how she began to cry and could not do an easy maneuver that before conceiving was a cakewalk. Her husband was as startled as she when she refused to climb again until months after her delivery.

    March 24, 2010 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. rh

    I love these kinds of studies, do they compare pregnant women to women in a comparable state of major stress? Stress causes memory problems, and being pregnant causes stress.

    The "no intention of becoming pregnant' is a funny thing too, that seem relatively biased rather than picking a set of random women.

    March 24, 2010 at 19:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Contrary.

    This is the sort of study that makes national news? Aside from the miniscule sample size, the study provides little information that would necessarily link hormonal changes and short term or spatial memory loss. There are plenty of other variables, like lack of sleep during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, that could have an effect on short term memory. That isn't to say the conclusions of the study are false. After all, the conclusion, as written, essentially makes no claims at all, aside from a declaration that someone ought to do some research on the brains of pregnant women.

    March 24, 2010 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jeremy Harford

    This is interesting, and as a man I would consider it to be good news. My sons' mother and I are divorced. Our older son has autism, and the stress associated with adjustments for him led to the breakup. I was always curious whether some of her mental/mood changes were the result of two pregnancies, and this shows that they were not. She too was curious whether postpartum depression played a role after our younger son was a year old - this demonstrates that it may not have been.

    Pregnancy is certainly a complicated phenomena, and considering the high level of complexity involved throughout the myriad scenarios and situations faced by parents, any new information is very useful to all of us.

    Now, are we going to start teaching these things in health classes, and not only to young women, so that perhaps the negative stereotypes may be alieviated and future generations better prepared for the challenges of life?

    March 24, 2010 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. donald

    its called DIPS (Dumbness Induced By Pregnancy)

    March 24, 2010 at 21:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. or....

    or.... maybe the women who don't want to become pregnant are just smarter and have more common sense, which helps them score a little higher on the tests... 😉

    March 24, 2010 at 21:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. John

    This is so true. My wife forgot to pay our electric bill and it got shut off. Never in 13 years of marriage has anything like that happened, except when she was pregnant.

    March 24, 2010 at 22:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Beth Mitchell

    Hormones may play a part, but much of this comes from the foetus drawing fatty acids from the mother's brain. The brain is the main place that our bodies store these nutrients. That's why taking Omega-3 supplements are so beneficial during pregnancy.

    March 24, 2010 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Margo

    Pregnant women and women who have just given birth and are caring for a new baby are all notorious for being sleep deprived due to sheer physical stress. It is a well established correlation that sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment. So this study doesn't tell us anything new.

    March 24, 2010 at 22:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Janet

    This happened to me throughout all of my pregnancies, and in fact lasted for approximately three months after having my children (all three of my kids)

    My memory, which is normally pretty sharp, was more than terrible; I was simply unable to multitask. If I was washing something, I couldn't cook- either something would burn or water flooded my floors! It was even worse because I was used to doing 10 things at a time and now I could only do one, so I'd automatically act like I was able to do them, but I just couldn't. And then I'd forget that I couldn't!

    Back then we sterilized bottles in boiling water. Yeah... that didn't work out for me either. I would leave the house with the stove on only to find the fire department waiting for me when I got back or awaken the family from smoke inhalation from burning latex. I know, I was an extreme case – and dangerous! This was devastating because I felt guilty and didn't understand what was going on until I had my second child... and by the time my third came around, I was more aware but would still forget I couldn't multitask!

    But again, three months later when hormones were back to 'normal', multitasking was part of my life – sans the dangers of course. And so was losing that awesome head of hair I grew with my pregnancies 🙂

    March 25, 2010 at 00:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Garry

    A follow-on study needs to be conducted on hormone levels during the menstral cycle. This would explain why women have to look for keys, purses and other "lost objects" at some periods of the cycle than others.

    March 25, 2010 at 06:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. proud Mommy

    Too funny. My younger sister was really bad for being forgetful when she was pregnant. She was suppose to pick me up to go out for a coffee once and as I waited for 20 mins on my front step she waited for 20 minutes at the coffee shop when she realized she was suppose to pick me up! Toward the later part of her pregnancy she would often start getting out of her truck without turning it off, and once without putting it in park!! This is a woman that is very organized and never forgetful other wise! We still tease her lol. I could understand the lack of sleep being a big factor during and for a while after the baby is born. It's hard to function with little sleep, and constant interrupted sleep!! But it all turns out for the better after about...5 or 6 years 🙂

    March 25, 2010 at 06:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sara

    This does not surprise me. I'm in my second trimester in my first pregnancy and I just completely lack the mental ability and focus that I had before pregnancy. I'm constantly leaving myself little reminder notes everywhere so that I can function. At least I can look forward to getting back to normal after the baby comes!

    March 25, 2010 at 10:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Stacey

    My co-workers and I often joke about Mommy brain-glad to see some back up on it! While I was pregnant with my first, I ran my car out of gas at least 5 times-something I had never done in my life and have not done since! Even with having to waddle to the gas station at 7 in the morning after my car died in the driveway, I would still forget-now I can tell my husband that it is not something I made up.

    March 26, 2010 at 00:09 | Report abuse | Reply

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