Pregnancy and amnesia

Pregnancy is a particular period in a woman’s life: physical, psychological and hormonal changes chase each other and combine with each other, producing effects that are reflected in the different aspects of life.

Many women experience difficulties in concentration and memory, especially in aspects of everyday life. Not remembering where a set of keys is stored and finding it after hours in the refrigerator, forgetting that you have to do something, not being able to come up with a very simple word in common use: they are all small amnesias.

Amnesia  is a memory disorder that consists in the inability to recall information at a specific moment It can be divided differently according to its duration and the areas of memory it affects. It can therefore be  temporary  or  permanent ,  anterograde  when it concerns the formation of new memories or retrograde if it affects past ones.

The causes of memory problems in pregnancy are not entirely certain and vary from woman to woman. What is certain is that physical  and psychological factors  play a very important role. In the beginning, the woman is struggling with morning tiredness, insomnia and fatigue in general. As the pregnancy progresses, thoughts  and actions in preparation for the birth of the child increase: being “distracted” by a new life that is growing inside you shouldn’t sound so strange.

For this particular condition the term “ momnesia ” (from the English  mum , mother + amnesia) was coined  . Pediatrician Tanya Altman used it for the first time in reference to the memory difficulties that future mothers experience from the  twenty-sixth week  of pregnancy up to  six to twelve months of the child’s life .

Neuropsychiatrist Dr Luann Brizendine, founder of the  Women’s and Teen girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic  at the University of California, elaborated on the topic in the book “The female brain” discussing the impact of the biological and hormonal changes triggered from motherhood. According to her studies, the difficulties in focusing and memory are due to a different investment by the brain, which would put the protection and monitoring of the unborn child in the foreground, leaving the “superfluous” in the background.

The role of the amygala

The amygdala  is that group of neurons, similar in shape to an almond, which plays a central role in mnemonic processes and emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety, aggression. Normally, amygala activity increases in the weeks of the third trimester and in the months following delivery. This growth is functional to the increase in sensitivity towards the needs of the child; a “cocktail” of hormones triggers a virtuous circle whereby taking care of the unborn child activates the brain circuits linked to reward. This mechanism is evident, for example, in the sweet, affectionate and attentive ways in which the mother addresses the newborn. Not surprisingly, therefore, women with amyggal damage may be more likely to develop postpartum depression.

According to an English study, hormones can also interfere with the functioning of spatial memory: this would be due to the difficulty in remembering where things have been placed. This shift in attention could have a developmental explanation: it would in fact be functional to a greater attentional investment in the child.( 1 )

Cognitive impairment? No thank you

If for some studies it is possible to speak of a real “brain of pregnancy”, others seem to disconfirm this hypothesis, keeping the debate active within the scientific community.

A group of Australian researchers, coordinated by Dr. Helen Christensen, investigated the real existence of a real cognitive deficit due to pregnancy. Their starting hypothesis is that the previous studies could not be completely reliable as they were carried out on particular groups of women, ie volunteers recruited from among those already under the attention of the health services. They would therefore not be representative samples of the mean; moreover, how can one affirm the presence of a “pregnancy” cognitive deficit without having a previous measurement?

To overcome this distortion, the Christensen team has developed a longitudinal study, i.e. repeating the tests on the same group of women several times over time. The research began in 1999, with further measurements in 2003 and 2007 and involved about two hundred women. Predictably, over the years some became pregnant, others became mothers and others were childless. For each woman, therefore, data were available referring both to the period of any pregnancy and to the previous and following one. (2)

The results obtained did not show the presence of negative cognitive impacts due to pregnancy. However, the researchers are keen to point out that even more precise data could be obtained if the tests were administered at the exact same time for each woman.

What to do?

Commonly, it is not strange to have some forgetfulness when you are very tired: this is true for both men and women. So why should it be weird for a woman just because she’s pregnant? It is a condition in which the body and mind are looking for a new balance among many changes in rapid succession. The first step therefore is to understand that there is nothing wrong with feeling poorly concentrated and with some “holes” in memory.

Much of the physical and mental energies are invested in the child so it is important to manage them well.
From a physical point of view, it is advisable to be able to rest and sleep for an adequate number of hours, as well as to follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, respecting oneself and the child.
To counteract mental fatigue, it may be useful to simplify your daily life: use written reminders for appointments, mark yourself on a slate where things have been put, do not make excessive commitments.

Finally, it is important to be able to ask your loved ones for help, learning to delegate where possible and requesting support in managing everyday life. This also means relying on positive and welcoming people, with whom you can share your difficulties without feeling judged.

If concentration and memory lapses are very frequent and are accompanied by other symptoms, it is advisable to consult a specialist to better understand what is happening and receive adequate support, so as to prevent the onset of further difficulties that could affect one’s well-being and of the unborn child.

Katherine Johnson, M.D., is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with clinical expertise in general obstetrics and gynecology, family planning, women’s health, and gynecology.

She is affiliated with the Obstetrics and Gynecology division at an undisclosed healthcare institution and the online platform,

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