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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