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Neuroscientist and adjunct professor, taking a sabbatical in toddler neurodevelopment


“Pregnancy brain” is a colloquial term with growing scientific merit.

While used by expecting mothers to describe anecdotal feelings of difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness during pregnancy, cellular and imaging studies are proving that pregnancy and post-pregnancy brain changes are very real.

Pregnancy is accompanied by numerous long-studied hormonal and physiological changes, but reproduction-induced neuroplasticity is a growing area of investigation. Within the last two decades reports have increasingly described architectural brain alterations correlating with pregnancy, including differences in brain cell numbers and cell characteristics, such as neuronal dendritic branching and spine formation. Similarly, reports of altered neurogenesis (birth of new neurons) in both the hippocampus and forebrain in conjunction with pregnancy have stimulated new veins of research.

More recently, structural studies suggesting functional changes, such as Chan et al. yield strong evidence that brain structure reproducibly changes with pregnancy using non-invasive MRI-based methods.

Cell types that shift with pregnancy have broadened to include not only neurons and astrocytes, but microglia, suggesting alterations in the neuroimmune environment with pregnancy.

While most related studies have used rodent and other animal models to investigate maternal brain changes, Rijnink et al. confirmed, in a human sample study, that male cells (Y-chromosome containing) were actually present in the cerebral cortex of females who had been pregnant with a son (microchimerism). This is of particular interest as debate regarding blood-brain barrier integrity in humans during pregnancy is ongoing.

Most recently Hoekzema et al.’s study, again in humans, showed gray matter volume losses occurred in women after pregnancy and persisted for at least two years – the first study to demonstrate such anatomical changes in the pregnant human brains are long-lasting.

A review by Pawluski et al. delves into how neuroplastic changes may play a role in behavorial flexibility during and post-pregnancy. Further investigations of causal mechanisms for the growing number of observed pregnancy brain changes will be of great interest.


Tissue microchimerism is increased during pregnancy: a human autopsy study.

Abstract: Microchimerism is the occurrence of small populations of cells with a different genetic background within an individual. Tissue microchimerism is considered to be primarily pregnancy-derived and is often studied relative to female-dominant autoimmune diseases, pregnancy complications, malignancies, response to injury, and transplantation outcomes. A particular distribution pattern of chimeric cells across various organs was recently described in a model of murine pregnancies. Our aim was to determine the frequency and distribution of tissue microchimerism across organs during and after pregnancy in humans. We performed in situ hybridization of the Y chromosome on paraffin-embedded autopsy samples of kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts and brains that were collected from 26 women who died while pregnant or within 1 month after delivery of a son. Frequencies of chimeric cells in various tissues were compared with those of a control group of non-pregnant women who had delivered sons. Tissue microchimerism occurred significantly more frequently in the lungs, spleens, livers, kidneys and hearts of pregnant women compared with non-pregnant women (all P < 0.01). We showed that some of the chimeric cells were CD3+ or CD34+. After correction for cell density, the lung was most chimeric (470 Y chromosome-positive nuclei per million nuclei scored), followed by the spleen (208 Y+/10(6) nuclei), liver (192 Y+/10(6) nuclei), kidney (135 Y+/10(6) nuclei), brain (85 Y+/10(6) nuclei) and heart (40 Y+/10(6) nuclei). Data from this unique study group of women who died while pregnant or shortly after delivery provide information about the number and physiologic distribution of chimeric cells in organs of pregnant women. We demonstrate that during pregnancy, a boost of chimeric cells is observed in women, with a distribution across organs, that parallels findings in mouse models.

Pub.: 27 Aug '15, Pinned: 23 Apr '17

A survey of neuroimmune changes in pregnant and postpartum female rats.

Abstract: During pregnancy and the postpartum period, the adult female brain is remarkably plastic exhibiting modifications of neurons, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. However, little is known about how microglia, the brain's innate immune cells, are altered during this time. In the current studies microglial density, number and morphological phenotype were analyzed within multiple regions of the maternal brain that are known to show neural plasticity during the peripartum period and/or regulate peripartum behavioral changes. Our results show a significant reduction in microglial density during late pregnancy and the early-mid postpartum period in the basolateral amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens shell and dorsal hippocampus. In addition, microglia numbers were reduced postpartum in all four brain regions, and these reductions occurred primarily in microglia with a thin, ramified morphology. Across the various measures, microglia in the motor cortex were unaffected by reproductive status. The peripartum decrease in microglia may be a consequence of reduced proliferation as there were fewer numbers of proliferating microglia, and no changes in apoptotic microglia, in the postpartum hippocampus. Finally, hippocampal concentrations of the cytokines interleukin (IL)-10 and IL-6 were increased postpartum. Together, these data point to a shift in the maternal neuroimmune environment during the peripartum period that could contribute to neural and behavioral plasticity occurring during the transition to motherhood.

Pub.: 01 Oct '16, Pinned: 23 Apr '17

Long-term alterations in neural and endocrine processes induced by motherhood in mammals.

Abstract: This article is part of a Special Issue "Parental Care". The reproductive experience of pregnancy, lactation and motherhood can significantly remodel the female's biological state, affecting endocrine, neuroendocrine, neural, and immunological processes. The brain, pituitary gland, liver, thymus, and mammary tissue are among the structures that are modified by reproductive experience. The present review that focuses on rodent research, but also includes pertinent studies in sheep and other species, identifies specific changes in these processes brought about by the biological states of pregnancy, parturition, and lactation and how the components of reproductive experience contribute to the remodeling of the maternal brain and organ systems. Findings indicate that prior parity alters key circulating hormone levels and neural receptor gene expression. Moreover, reproductive experience results in modifications in neural processes and glial support. The possible role of pregnancy-induced neurogenesis is considered in the context of neuroplasticity and behavior, and the effects of reproductive experience on maternal memory, i.e. the retention of maternal behavior, together with anxiety and learning are presented. Together, these sets of findings support the concept that the neural and biological state of the adult female is significantly and dramatically altered on a long-term basis by the experiences of parity and motherhood. Remodeling of the maternal brain and other biological systems is posited to help facilitate adaptations to environmental/ecological challenges as the female raises young and ages.

Pub.: 22 Sep '15, Pinned: 23 Apr '17

Structural and Functional Brain Remodeling during Pregnancy with Diffusion Tensor MRI and Resting-State Functional MRI.

Abstract: Although pregnancy-induced hormonal changes have been shown to alter the brain at the neuronal level, the exact effects of pregnancy on brain at the tissue level remain unclear. In this study, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and resting-state functional MRI (rsfMRI) were employed to investigate and document the effects of pregnancy on the structure and function of the brain tissues. Fifteen Sprague-Dawley female rats were longitudinally studied at three days before mating (baseline) and seventeen days after mating (G17). G17 is equivalent to the early stage of the third trimester in humans. Seven age-matched nulliparous female rats served as non-pregnant controls and were scanned at the same time-points. For DTI, diffusivity was found to generally increase in the whole brain during pregnancy, indicating structural changes at microscopic levels that facilitated water molecular movement. Regionally, mean diffusivity increased more pronouncedly in the dorsal hippocampus while fractional anisotropy in the dorsal dentate gyrus increased significantly during pregnancy. For rsfMRI, bilateral functional connectivity in the hippocampus increased significantly during pregnancy. Moreover, fractional anisotropy increase in the dentate gyrus appeared to correlate with the bilateral functional connectivity increase in the hippocampus. These findings revealed tissue structural modifications in the whole brain during pregnancy, and that the hippocampus was structurally and functionally remodeled in a more marked manner.

Pub.: 15 Dec '15, Pinned: 23 Apr '17

Fetal microchimerism in the maternal mouse brain: a novel population of fetal progenitor or stem cells able to cross the blood-brain barrier?

Abstract: We investigated whether fetal cells can enter the maternal brain during pregnancy. Female wild-type C57BL/6 mice were crossed with transgenic Green Mice ubiquitously expressing enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP). Green Mouse fetal cells were found in the maternal brain. Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of genomic DNA for the EGFP gene showed that more fetal cells were present in the maternal brain 4 weeks postpartum than on the day of parturition. After an excitotoxic lesion to the brain, more fetal cells were detected in the injured region. The presence of fetal cells in the maternal brain was also confirmed by quantitative real-time PCR for the sex-determining region of the Y chromosome. Four weeks postpartum, EGFP-positive Green Mouse fetal cells in the maternal brain were found to adopt locations, morphologies, and expression of immunocytochemical markers indicative of perivascular macrophage-, neuron-, astrocyte-, and oligodendrocyte-like cell types. Expression of morphological and immunocytochemical characteristics of neuron- and astrocyte-like cell types was confirmed on identification of fetal cells in maternal brain by Y chromosome fluorescence in situ hybridization. Although further studies are required to determine whether such engraftment of the maternal brain has any physiological or pathophysiological functional significance, fetomaternal microchimerism provides a novel model for the experimental investigation of the properties of fetal progenitor or stem cells in the brain without prior in vitro manipulation. Characterization of the properties of these cells that allow them to cross both the placental and blood-brain barriers and to target injured brain may improve selection procedures for isolation of progenitor or stem cells for brain repair by intravenous infusion.

Pub.: 11 Aug '05, Pinned: 23 Apr '17