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Motherhood may make you smarter, new study says

Aug. 3, 2012 at 12:33 PM ET

By Rachael Rettner
MyHealthNewsDaily Staff Writer

Having a child may improve a woman's memory, a new study suggests.

In the study, women who were new mothers scored better on tests of visuospatial memory — the ability to perceive and remember information about their surroundings — compared with women who didn't have children.

The findings rebut the old belief that women develop "baby brain," or a decline in memory and cognitive function, after they have kids, said study researcher Melissa Santiago, a doctoral student at Carlos Albizu University in Miami.

"You don’t have to feel that because you have kids, your memory isn’t the same," Santiago said.

The study was small, and the findings will have to be replicated in larger, more ethnically diverse groups of people, Santiago said.

 

Santiago presented the study here this week at the American Psychological Association meeting.

Motherhood on the brain

Previous studies on the topic have had mixed results —some showed motherhood hurts cognition, and others showed the opposite. Studies on rats show those with pups have better memory than those without offspring.

Santiago analyzed information from 35 first-time mothers whose children were ages 10 to 24 months, and 35 women who had never been pregnant. The majority of women were Hispanic, and both groups scored similarly on intelligence tests. The average age of mothers was 29 and the average age of never-pregnant women was 27.

To test visuospatial memory, the women were shown a paper containing six symbols for 10 seconds, and then asked to draw what they remembered. This task was repeated several times.

The first time women were shown the paper, both groups remembered about the same amount. But on the second and third pass, mothers performed better than those without children, indicating that the mothers garnered more information each time than the other women.

Later, the women were shown a variety of different symbols, and asked to remember which ones were present on the earlier task. Mothers did not make a mistake in this task — they remembered every symbol correctly — but those without children made one or two errors, Santiago said.

Why does having kids improve memory?

In pregnancy many physiological changes happen to the body, and the brain even shrinks 4 to 6 percent. But it returns to its normal size six months after childbirth, and during this time of re-growth, the brain may re-map itself in a way that is responsible for the memory changes seen in the study, Santiago said.

It may be beneficial for mothers to improve their visuospatial memory so that they are able to quickly scan an environment for hazards that could hurt their kids, Santiago said.

As a mother of two young children, Santiago said: "I'm constantly searching my environment, scanning everywhere, to make sure that they're not going to harm themselves, they're not going to do anything that will cause them to choke or to be endangered."

In future studies, researchers will need to follow the same group of women over time to validate the results and to determine how long the effect lasts, Santiago said.

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