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pregnant-3060601_1280

The traditional biomedical conception of pregnancy examines the mother-child exchange in a unidirectional sense, from mother to child. Biological changes that medicine records go in the aforementioned direction: increased iron demand, increased circulating blood volume, and reduced insulin sensitivity are evaluated in relation to the increased metabolic demands resulting from the developmental needs of the fetus. Psychological models (from Bion to Winnicott) also emphasize the “nurturing” role of the mother toward the new being in formation.

A different point of view

Research in immunology and neurobiology changes this view, emphasizing the two-way exchange between mother and child. Not only does the mother condition the child’s development with her nutrition, emotions and lifestyle, but the child also marks the mother’s body and mind. Immunological research is older and more established, although many aspects are still obscure. We know that the pregnant woman’s immune system has to undergo a shift, a shift from the Th1 circuit to the Th2 circuit, which is functional for the continuation of the pregnancy, which could be disrupted by excessive activity of the Th1 circuit, prompted by the partial heterogenicity of the fetus, which is genetically different from the maternal organism. An ‘immune alteration that, in most cases, rebalances in the postpartum period and functions as a protective factor toward autoimmune diseases activated by Th1 circuit hyperresponsiveness, such as multiple sclerosis.

Woman changes

We now know that a woman’s brain also changes during pregnancy. Research by a group of neuroscientists at the University of Barcelona has shown that strategic cortical areas change, that this change predicts the quality of the mother’s attachment to the child, and that it persists well beyond the period of pregnancy1. The research examined, with MRI, the brains of 25 women monitored before, during and after the conclusion of pregnancy. The images, compared with those of a group of women of the same age without children, showed changes in the gray matter of the pregnant women in the brain circuitry that underlies the so-called “theory of mind” and that is the ability a person has to understand the thoughts and emotions of others.

This mental function underlies the construction of human relationships and thus sociality. The more pronounced the brain changes in this circuit were during pregnancy, the greater the mother’s degree of attachment to the infant was found to be at a follow-up 2 1/2 months after birth. Of note was the fact that after 2 years, some brain areas, such as the hippocampus, showed persistence of changes. Finally, very intriguing was the fact that the above changes were in terms of reducing the overall volume of gray matter. This reminds us that a reduction in gray matter is not always negative in itself. The phenomenon occurs at crucial passages of life, for example, during adolescence, where the structuring and stabilization of brain circuits is accompanied by an overall reduction in the volume of certain strategic areas, but to the benefit of greater stability and efficiency of the circuits. The mother’s brain becomes, so to speak, more refined, more willing to put ego and aggression on the back burner. He makes himself smaller to enjoy the love that comes from filial relationship.

By
Francesco Bottaccioli

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