Liisa Galea is an award-winning researcher at the University of B.C. with a PhD in neuroscience.
So it was more than a little embarrassing for her when, pregnant with her second child, she couldn’t remember where her car was parked. She knew she’d left it in the parkade across the street from her UBC office. But, for the life of her, she couldn’t recall what level she was on.
Even worse, it didn’t happen just once or twice – but nearly a dozen times throughout her third trimester.
Galea is far from the first woman to forget things during pregnancy, a phenomenon so common it goes by many names: “momnesia,” “baby brain” and “dumb Mom syndrome.”
But as an expert in the field of neuroendocrinology – the link between hormones and the brain – Galea was in a unique position to figure out what was going on.
On the face of it, the notion that having a child might affect a woman’s brain function is not that surprising. There’s plenty of evidence that hormones can influence thinking. And pregnancy has a dramatic effect on hormone levels – estrogen, for example, can reach concentrations 1,000 times normal.
When surveyed by researchers, almost all pregnant women say they suffer at least some memory problems and difficulty focusing.
But studies that actually try to test pregnant women’s memory in the lab have been decidedly mixed: some find they perform worse than non-pregnant women while others have not. Carrie Cuttler, a post-doctoral fellow at UBC and a colleague of Galea’s, began to wonder whether the lab itself might be the problem.
In a not-yet-published study, Cuttler and her colleagues asked 60 pregnant women and 24 non-pregnant women to perform a series of memory tests in their lab, such as a repeating back a list of words.
As expected, the pregnant women did as well as the non-pregnant women on almost all the tests.
But that wasn’t the end of the study. As the women were leaving, Cuttler gave them a short, one-page questionnaire and asked them to mail it back to her the next day. “It was stamped, it was addressed, it was ready to go,” said Cuttler. “All they had to do was pop it in the mailbox.”
Which is exactly what 70 per cent of the non-pregnant women did.
And the pregnant women?