Pregnancy affects spatial awareness
Where did I put that...? Researchers say hormones in pregnancy can affect the way women see the world around them
18th March 2010 - Researchers think they know why pregnant women sometimes
forget where things are: it’s hormones affecting how the brain sees the world
The study by the Bradford Institute for Health Research, University of
Bradford, found that spatial recognition memory ability was reduced during the
later stages of pregnancy. The effect also lasts for at least three months
after the birth.
Mental map of our surroundings
To remember our way to somewhere, or where we put something, we have to be
able to record a memory for a location, orientate ourselves with the
surroundings - and importantly remember all this information later on.
This spatial memory is linked to a part of the brain called the hippocampus.
This can be affected by changes in hormones.
Many expectant mothers report memory problems, but scientists still don’t know
enough about this area.
Only last month, Australian researchers said pregnancy wasn’t to blame for
memory lapses. Growing babies can’t be blamed for what’s been called
‘Preg-head’, ‘ baby brain’ or ‘mumnesia’,
At the time, Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of
Midwives, told us “The physical and emotional stresses on a woman’s body from
pregnancy can make women feel more tired than usual. As we all know tiredness -
for men as well as women - can make us lose concentration and cause us to
function less effectively.”
In the new Bradford study, 23 expectant mums and 24 women who were not
pregnant were given four special computer based tests to see how well they
remembered patterns and locations they’d seen before. They were asked to plan
moves and learn rules.
Their memory, spatial recognition, attention and mood and anxiety were
measured. Levels of several hormones were also checked.
The pregnant women performed significantly worse on the spatial memory
During the second and third trimesters, and three months after the birth, they
scored around 70% compared to around 80% for the women who were not
The mood and anxiety scores suggested that pregnant women have lower mood,
greater anxiety and greater risk of depression compared to the non-pregnant
women. Scores following birth were then the same as non-pregnant women.
Hormone level measurements confirmed substantially increased blood levels of
oestradiol, progesterone, cortisol, prolactin and the sex hormone binding
globulin, while dehydroepiandrosterone-sulphate levels halved during
The researchers say their findings help to provide more information on the
effects of pregnancy on memory. They say that this increased understanding of
the maternal brain may help those who provide care for pregnant women.
Research midwife Diane Farrar of the Bradford Institute for Health Research
says in a news release: “Forgetfulness and slips of attention are phenomena
commonly reported by pregnant women, but scientists have yet to identify a
specific mechanism by which this memory impairment might occur. Indeed, some
question whether the reported memory loss exists at all.
“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
“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.”
The findings will be presented this week at the annual Society for
Endocrinology BES conference in Manchester.