Mommy Brain: Pregnancy and Postpartum Memory Deficits

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Mommy brain - pregnancy postpartum memory
Pregnancy and postpartum memory problems are common complaints amongst new moms. Are they real?  Some research says yes, other research says no.

In graduate school I studied this issue and completed several studies on pregnancy and postpartum mood and memory changes. In one such study,  I ran a full battery neuropsychological tests on a group (n = 28) of highly educated, healthy, medication free, first-time moms. We tested in late pregnancy and within 10 days following the delivery of the child. We also measured a range of hormones (progesterone, DHEAS, testosterone, estrone, estradiol and estriol) to determine what relationship the radical hormone changes of pregnancy and childbirth had on a woman’s cognitive ability. We knew from animal research that steroid hormones could affect learning in very significant ways. It wasn’t that difficult to suspect the same would be true of human women.

The study was never published, rejected from at least three, maybe four journals and has been sitting in a file ever since (along with a number of other studies). With the open access and open science movements growing, I decided it was time for this research to see the light of day.  I will be self-publishing much of my research over the coming weeks and months.  Here is the first study. Understanding Maternal Cognitive Changes: Associations between Hormones and Memory.

Is the Mommy Brain Real?

More importantly, are hormones to blame?  The answer is yes on both counts. We found that pregnant and postpartum women exhibited detectable cognitive deficits across multiple domains. The deficits were worse in late pregnancy and mostly improved postpartum. These memory problems were linked to both the excessively high hormones of late pregnancy, the low hormones following delivery and the large changes in hormone concentration from pregnancy to postpartum.

What Types of Cognitive Deficits?

Pregnant and to a lesser degree, postpartum women had difficulty sustaining focus – this may be the mommy brain fog that many women complain of. We also found that during pregnancy especially, women were unable to manipulate and organize incoming information effectively. This presented as poor performance across a number of tests that assessed both short and long term memory.

In the case of verbal memory, these highly intelligent (estimated average IQ was 114 – 119) and educated (average years of education was 16 years) women tested in the low single digit to the 20th percentiles across multiple IQ-adjusted verbal recall measures. Even when estimates of IQ were not used to adjust scores, the participants performed poorly compared to normative standards. This was surprising given that many of these women had advanced degrees and were working in professional capacities.

The verbal tests involved remembering lists of words; words that could be grouped into meaningful categories that would improve memory significantly. Most of the study participants had difficulty grouping the words into categories. Instead, they would attempt to remember by rote sequence, which is always much more difficult. They also exhibited high numbers of intrusions – recalling words that were not in the original lists and repetitions – repeating words.

Similarly, and more strikingly visible, visual- spatial memory was marred by the inability to group bits of information and perhaps even to see the groupings in the first place. In this test, the study participants were given a complex figure to copy (shown below). They were not told that they would be asked to recall and redraw the picture later.  When asked to redraw the figure, the inability to see the totality of the picture, to group bits of information was apparent.

Visual – spatial memory deficits as assessed by the Rey Complex Figure Test. Marrs et al. 2013, © 2013 Lucine Health Sciences, Inc. All rights reserved.

Does Memory Improve Postpartum?

Interestingly, while spatial memory improved significantly from pregnancy to postpartum, verbal memory did not. And this is probably what troubles women the most, the perceived deficits in verbal memory. Most of us think in words, when our ability to find words, retain words, organize information effectively is compromised, we notice.

Hormones and Memory

Both high levels of late pregnancy estrogens, (estrone, estradiol and estriol – we measured all three) and the low levels these estrogens postpartum were correlated with multiple measures of diminished memory, attention and processing. Additionally, the larger the change in the circulating levels of estrogens from late pregnancy to early postpartum was associated with poor memory postpartum. Indeed, women who had higher postpartum estradiol and estriol specifically, performed better on measures of verbal memory than those who did not.

Progesterone, long thought to be associated with cognitive function, primarily because of its sedative properties, was not associated with any measure of cognitive function at either test time, although large changes in progesterone were associated with some performance measures.  DHEAS and testosterone, not often measured in pregnancy, postpartum or even in women’s health in general, were also associated with a few measures of cognitive functioning.

What This Means

Ladies, you are not imagining the pregnancy memory problems. They exist and they are related to the hormones. Most women knew this already, but it took a while for science to catch up. Not to worry though, the memory problems do resolve as the hormones stabilize (my next study to be self-published – a long term follow-up). Read the full study for all the details: Understanding Maternal Cognitive Changes: Associations between Hormones and Memory.

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This article was originally published on Hormones Matter on March 26, 2013.

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12 Comments

  1. I gave birth to my 6th child, after 1 month i recognize i forget easily.. Like i was in the mall, buying for a cosmetics then i go to the last floor to buy some stuff for the baby, when im in the counter i see the cosmetic i bought at the firsg floor almost the same, so i told to the cashier im going to pay the cosmetics in the first floor which the cosmetics are located… But suddenly i received an emergency call from my sis i hurried up and forget that the cosmetic i bought to change and pay it i was outside when the salesclerk confront.. This is.the bad situation happened to me.. I hope you could help me for this…

  2. I have degree and work in IT and my job depends on quick, sharp responses to complex issues and the ability to organize details to solve problems. My daughter just turned 15 months and I am still definitely struggling with focus and verbal memory. There is a significant difference in what I am able to retain, process and organize now compared to my pre-parent self, including my conversation skills. It is most noticeable in discussions about complex topics, I get stuck on words and will lose my thought process. I compare it to a sharpened pencil, I definitely feel like a dull, rounded pencil lead right now. It is stressful! Thank you for your study, if we identify first that there is in fact is a medical issue, and a scientific explanation for what is going on, we are then on a path to better support mothers during this time (both mentally and physically).

    1. Your experience is not uncommon. When I would present these data at conferences, I cannot tell you how many women and some men would come up to me afterwards to tell me that they or their wives experienced similar cognitive difficulties. I did too, post pregnancy. I am not sure when it resolved but it did, over time.

  3. I had trouble for around 6 months after delivering my third child. I would forget things, pretty big things. I forgot that a friend was coming over for a play date with my 3 year old, almost every appointment I made and marked down was somehow forgotten, I routinely forgot our weekly dance lessons, and I even forgot my infant son was in the car with me once. It was terrible and so scary to feel like I was actually “losing it”. For me, it was those 6 months postpartum that were the worst.

    1. I think most women have these difficulties, but we are afraid to acknowledge them because of the political issues surrounding pregnancy, feminism, and our inherent desire to be superwomen. In reality, I think if we were to acknowledge that pregnancy and postpartum included tremendous biochemical changes, along with the social, relationship and all of the other changes, and perhaps take better care of our new moms, we’d all be better off. I know I had difficulties from mid pregnancy onward. It does get better though.

  4. Was there any solution to help increase the levels beside letting your body produce naturally? My son is 3 years old and I still experience significant loss. I feel like my 8 years of education is nearly gone.

    1. Have you spoken with anyone about it since you post this? My son is also three but I’ve felt the symptoms after having my daughter whose 7 now. It has not resolved on its on and thinking on seeking some medical help

  5. Thank you so much for confirming to pregnant women and new moms that its not in their head! 🙂 And what they are imagining is real. And that their hormones are causing it!

    1. Krissy, you are very welcome. I think it is so important that women know what they are experiencing is real. The brain is one big endocrine organ. It produces hormones by itself but also responds to hormones from the body. Any hormone change, can cause learning and memory deficits, mood changes and even severe psychiatric disturbances. I have more research to publish on this over the coming weeks. Know that you are not alone in experiencing the impact of hormone dysregulation on mood and memory.

  6. Yes! Thank you so much for showing the HUGE effect estrogen levels have on our memory and learning and abilities.

    I’m only 30 years old. But when my daughter was five months old, after five months of 13+ thyroid disease symptoms, my postpartum insomnia changed to total sleeplessness.
    My family wasn’t supportive or loving and the few doctors I was able to see were ignorant and didn’t do the proper tests or listen to my symptoms. My insomnia was not taken seriously sadly. My near sleeplessness lasted for over two years. About a year and a half into it, it started causing symptoms of early perimenopause. I developed all the symptoms of low estrogen. Yet, a few doctors just looked at my saliva tests and dismissed me because my result was in the “normal” range. Though they should understand that levels fluctuate greatly during perimenopause. My blood tests do show that my estrogen has severely declined, in correlation with my worsening symptoms, such as rapid aging. I wouldn’t be able to recall any of the diagram above mere minutes later. I can’t remember a phone number two minutes later. Five minutes after I have a conversation, I forget all the details. I’ve lost most of my long term life long memories. If I don’t video tape every cute thing my daughter does or every experience we share, it will be gone from my memory within days. My skin has lost elasticity. My hands and feet are wrinkled. My skin has thinned so much you can see the veins. In four years, I have gone from looking 21 to looking 60 something. Just the other day, someone didn’t know whether me or my 69 year old mom was my daughter’s GRANDMOTHER. My vagina is dry and has been for over a year. It is also very red and has become wrinkled and lost elasticity. I suffered HORRIBLE hot flashes and migraines. I don’t feel feminine anymore. My high pitched voice I’ve had all my life has become very low and deep. I have hair all over my body and face now that I’ve never had. My iq has declined considerably. Etc, etc, etc. I don’t feel nurturing or motherly anymore. I developed a vaginal odor that is very strong yet there are no infections. I understand the issue is mainly estrogen but sadly doctors won’t listen to me. It’s obvious just looking at what has happened to my skin. And, it is not from stress. The only stress I’ve had is not being taken seriously. It makes me feel very hopeless because this doesn’t have to be happening to my mind and skin. I feel very neglected by the medical community.

    I’m only 30 years old and this shouldn’t be happening. I barely have a livable life anymore.

    1. I’m sorry that you’re going through all of this. When I was about 29 I started having these symptoms including hair loss, vaginal dryness, sagging dry skin, high anxiety and severe insomnia. Just recently, now at age 34 I went to see a bio identical hormone replacement doctor and tested low for estrogen. My OB/GYN still doesn’t think my symptoms are cause by low estrogen but I definitely think they are. I started taking bio identical hormones but it’s still too early to tell if they are helping. I hope I can get some relief after four years.

    2. May I make a suggestion with regards to your diet?
      Can you start reading Ann Wigmore’s books on the living food?
      Why not spend some two weeks at Ann Wigmore’s Puerto Rico Centre and learn about another way to feed your body?
      I had my two children in my forties, 42 and 45! However, I managed to forget about an incident regarding financial matters involving my former “husband”. My son is now 13 years’ old and the recollection regarding the incident only happened last year before my divorce. The incident remained dormant in my memory for some 12 years! I have no explanations for it!
      If you live in Europe, there is a living food centre close to Stockholm, Sweden.
      PLEASE TRY THE LIVING FOOD AND I AM POSITIVE THAT YOU WILL BE ASTOUNDED BY THE OUTCOME!
      Wishing you strength and a positive mind
      Love, Mia Ash
      PS
      Please also listen /read Neville Goddard’s fabulous teachings

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