New moms may receive a memory improvement, according to a new study by researchers at Miami’s Carlos Albizu University. In the study, women who recently had children performed better on visuospatial memory tests, or tests designed to gauge the subject’s ability to retain memories about their physical surroundings, than women without children. Lead researcher Melissa Santiago said that the findings run contrary to the traditional notion that women experience a drop in cognitive function and memory after giving birth.
For example, existing studies have delivered mixed results, with some indicating that childbirth is detrimental to memory and cognition, and some indicating the opposite. Studies involving laboratory rats, which are genetically similar to humans, show that motherhood numbers among the many ways to boost memory.
Better Memory Scores for New Mothers
Santiago and the other researchers gathered information from 35 new moms with children ranging in age from 10 months to 2 years. The researchers also studied 35 women who had never given birth. Most of the female subjects were Hispanic, with an average age of 29 for the mothers group and 27 for the non-mothers group. All of the women achieved similar scores on intelligence tests at the outset of the study.
In order to test the participants’ visuospatial memory, the researchers showed them a paper with six different symbols for a total of 10 seconds each. The researchers then asked the participants to draw any symbols they remembered. This process was repeated many times to see how the women’s scores would improve.
Both groups performed about the same on the memory tests after seeing the paper a single time. However, women in the mothers group consistently performed better than women in the non-mothers group on the second and third trials.
In an additional test, the researchers showed the women many different symbols and asked them to identify the ones that appeared on the paper in the previous test. The women in the mothers group achieved perfect scores on this test, while the average woman in the non-mothers group made approximately one to two errors.
How Childbirth Affects the Brain
Many physiological and psychological changes occur during pregnancy, one of which is a shrinking of the brain by roughly 4% to 6%. However, the brain grows back to its usual size within six months of childbirth. As the brain is regaining its size, it may make new neurological connections that improve memory performance, according to Santiago. This may even be hardwired into our evolution as a way of allowing new moms to quickly assess their environments in order to identify potential dangers to their children. Santiago, a mother of two young kids herself, said that she frequently finds herself performing this exact task.
More Research is Needed
Of course, Santiago’s theory regarding childbirth and visuospatial memory is only that – a theory – and additional research will probably look to identify the nature of this relationship more concretely. It’s likely that a future study will examine these same two groups of women to confirm the results and determine whether the memory boost is permanent.
It should also be noted that the study was relatively small with only 70 participants in total, and that the relative lack of ethnic diversity in the study could reduce its validity. Future studies regarding ways to boost memory will likely include larger, more diverse subject pools.
Ways to Boost Memory: The Bottom Line
A new study conducted at Carlos Albizu University indicates that new moms have improved visuospatial memory in comparison to women who’ve never had children. The results will need additional confirmation because the study was small and mostly comprised women from a single ethnic group.
The study findings were presented recently at a meeting of the American Psychological Association.