Just How Real Is 'Pregnancy Brain'?
Researchers Find No Evidence That Pregnant Women Have Memory Lapses Known as 'Momnesia'
Feb. 5, 2010 -- Pregnancy and motherhood don't cause women to have memory
lapses and other cognitive problems, even though the concept of ''pregnancy
brain'' and ''momnesia'' are widely accepted, according to a new Australian
''When focused on a task, women who are pregnant or new mothers do not have
'cognitive deficits,' and perform as well as their non-pregnant
contemporaries," says the study's lead author Helen Christensen, PhD, a
researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra. Her study is
published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.
''Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and
upcoming birth," she tells WebMD in an email interview. "This does not mean
they have lost their capacities."
Many pregnancy guidebooks advise women about the possibility of short-term
memory problems during pregnancy, Christensen writes, and some studies done
with pregnant women have even supported the idea of ''pregnancy brain.''
But in her research, she found that animal studies were at odds with the
human studies. Some researchers even found better learning and memory during
pregnancy in their animal studies.
''This suggested to us that the effect of pregnancy or motherhood on
cognitive abilities may not have been adequately tested," she writes in the
journal. Major flaws in the human research, she states, are a lack of memory
testing before the pregnancy occurs in order to get a baseline, a sample size
that is too small, and lack of a follow-up period.
Cognitive Tests for Pregnant Women
In her study, Christensen evaluated women who had joined the Personality and
Total Health (PATH) Through Life Project, a large community-based study in 1999
that focused on health and well-being. She compared the women and their
cognitive test results at four-year intervals, in 2003 and 2007.
Christensen tested 1,241 women (age 20-24) at the start, in 1999, to provide
a baseline result. Over the eight years of the study, after subtracting
dropouts, 76 women were pregnant at follow-up interviews, either in 2003 or
2007; 188 became moms but were not pregnant at the time of the interview.
Another 542 didn't become pregnant. Only first-time moms and women pregnant for
the first time were included.
No significant differences were found in those who were pregnant or new moms
and those who weren't.
Late pregnancy was associated with poorer performance on a test of mental
speed, the researchers found. But overall, no substantial differences were
''We will continue to follow the sample, with 542 non-mothers, and an age
range of 28 to 32 now,'' she says.
Another Expert's View
The new findings echo those of Ros Crawley, PhD, a research at the
University of Sunderland in the U.K.
"In our 2008 study, we compared the performance of pregnant and non-pregnant
women on 15 sensitive tests of memory and attention and found very little
difference between them," Crawley tells WebMD in an email interview. "We also
compared their performance on measures in two driving simulator tasks that more
closely mimic a real-world condition task and found no difference."
She's not saying differences are never found between pregnant and
non-pregnant women's cognitive skills. "But the differences are not consistent
with the degree of self-reported deterioration that pregnant women
''We have suggested that it may be that pregnant women have internalized a
societal stereotype that suggests they will become more forgetful and
absentminded," Crawley says.
Deficits that are found, Crawley says, ''are always mild," and she says it
may not be the pregnancy, per se. "It could be that similar effects would be
found if the effects of other major life events [other than pregnancy] were
Her bottom line? "It is time that society questions the stereotype of
cognitive decline in pregnancy."