Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Having a Baby Boosts Brain Power

By Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer


It is a time of sleep deprivation, constant tiredness and a regular inability to carry out even the simplest task. But now scientists have discovered - after experimenting on the California deer mouse, laboratory rats, and humans - that pregnancy also confers startling benefits: it actually boosts brainpower.


During pregnancy, learning and memory skills improve dramatically, say researchers, reversing the popular myth that it is a time of dumbing down. Key brain areas also alter in size; changes that can persist for decades. Far from transforming mothers into weakened emotional wrecks who lose car keys and drop in IQ, it turns out having children makes them cleverer. It's just hard to spot thanks to all that lost sleep.


'Many benefits seem to emerge from motherhood, as the maternal brain rises to the reproductive challenge,' says Professor Craig Kinsley, of Richmond University, and Professor Kelly Lambert, of Randolph-Macon College, both in Virginia, writing in the latest Scientific American. 'In other words, when the going gets tough, the brain gets going.'


Their paper reveals that the brain-boosting potential of parenthood includes enhanced sensory abilities just after childbirth, allowing women to recognise their infants by faint smells and sounds. It also reports that women who have children in their forties are four times more likely to survive to 100 than women who gave birth earlier. Pregnancy enhances women's brains just when the memory decline of middle age normally kicks in, say researchers, leading to better mental health and longevity.


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