Scientists confirm increased right brain activity in pregnant women

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Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London have released new findings which show that women experience increased activity in the right section of their brains, the area related to emotional skills, during pregnancy.

The results of the research will be presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference by Dr Victoria Bourne.

Dr Bourne stated that the results of the results have provided them with incredible insight into what is known as ‘baby brain’. This phenomenon is said to make a female more sensitive during the months of pregnancy.

Studies that have been carried out previously indicated that women undergo a decrease in memory and learning during pregnancy in a bid to prepare for increased cognitive ability once the baby is born.

The American Psychological Associated reported during 2008 that the woman’s brain shrinks slightly when she is pregnant. According to the study, it was found that the brain volume decreases by around 4% during pregnancy and once the baby has been born, it returns to normal.

Dr Bourne and her colleagues found that when pregnant mothers were compared to new mothers, it showed that they use the right side of their brain more when observing faces with emotive expressions.

The results of the study are suggestive of changes in the way in which the brain processes facial emotions. This ensures that mothers are prepared neurologically to bond with their newborns.

The researchers assessed the neuropsychological activity of 39 pregnant females and new mothers while they were watching images of baby or adult faces with negative or positive expressions. To do this a test known as chimeric faces was used. It involves using images made up of a face that is half emotive and half neutral. This allowed the researchers to detect the side of the brain being used when the women were processing negative or positive emotions.

The findings indicated that the pregnant females used the right section of their brains more than the new mothers did, particularly while processing positive expressions.

Dr Bourne stated that they were aware, from previous research, that pregnant and new mothers have increased sensitive feelings to emotional expressions, particularly when viewing the faces of babies. She said that they were also aware that new mothers who were experiencing postnatal depression would at times interpret the emotional expressions of their babies in a more negative light than they actually were.

She explained that the effect may be in preparation. It is believed that in the final stages of pregnancy, the woman’s brain is becoming lateralized in order to establish increased sensitivity to facial emotion by the time their baby is born.

Dr Bourne explained that this may help the mother with early monitoring of their baby’s emotional state. She stated however that they did not include a group without a child in their study and are currently in the process of gathering a group to allow them to look at other possibilities.

She added that unravelling the changes that take place is an important step towards understanding how a mother’s bonding with her baby may be affected.

Image Credit: Céline Vignal

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