News Release

How pregnancy changes the parental brain

New animal findings explore how pregnancy and parenthood change the brain

Reports and Proceedings

Society for Neuroscience

SAN DIEGO, CA — Pregnancy and birthing have profound, often long-lasting, effects on brain physiology, mood and behavior. New findings on the neurobiology of the maternal experience were presented at Neuroscience 2022, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Maternal mental health conditions are among the most common complication of pregnancy and childbirth. Of the roughly 3.5 million people who give birth each year in the United States, approximately 20% will be impacted by mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Left untreated, these illnesses can have long-term negative impacts on parents, babies, families, and society. Research into the brain changes associated with maternal experiences is beginning to reveal the neural mechanisms underlying adaptive changes and perinatal mental illnesses.

Today’s new findings show that:

  • Susceptibility or resiliency to postpartum depression in a rodent model is associated with changes in neuroimmune markers and hormones that could serve as risk biomarkers or possible therapeutic targets for the condition. (Janace Gifford, University of Delaware)
  • Factors that regulate gene expression in learning and memory networks may mediate long-term effects of maternal experience in the brain in mice. (Ian S. Maze, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)
  • The long-lasting antidepressant effects of allopregnanolone in postpartum depression may be due to effects on coordination of activity across brain regions implicated in mood. (Jamie Maguire, Tufts University School of Medicine)

“The neuroscience findings presented today touch on different aspects of the transition to motherhood at multiple levels of investigation and in varied brain areas,” says session moderator Jodi Pawluski, a neuroscientist and psychotherapist whose research is affiliated with the Université de Rennes 1 and who studies how motherhood changes the brain. “These investigations into the maternal brain provide important insights into the neuroscience of parenting and have implications for targeting and treating perinatal mental illness.”

This research was supported by national funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health and private funding organizations. Find out more about maternal experience and the brain on

Press Conference Summary
- Reproductive experiences, such as pregnancy and birth, exert long-lasting effects on the structural and functional organization of the maternal brain.
- Studies in animal models are identifying physiological mechanisms that may underlie long-term brain changes associated with reproduction.

Vulnerability to Postpartum Anhedonia and Underlying Neuroimmune and Resting State Function in Sprague Dawley Rats
Janace Gifford, Abstract 146.21

  • Nearly 70% of women experience sadness, lack of interest (anhedonia), anxiety or other mood disturbances in the weeks following the birth of a child, and approximately 20% of these women may develop more severe, persistent postpartum depression.
  • Individual female rats showed variable vulnerability to postpartum anhedonia; those with postpartum anhedonia were also more anxious and less likely to care for their pups.
  • Rats susceptible to postpartum anhedonia had altered levels of some neuroimmune factors and hormones compared with unaffected animals, suggesting it may be possible to identify biomarkers that predict risk for postpartum depression and that could serve as novel therapeutic targets for the condition.

The Long-Term Effects of Reproductive Experience on the Maternal Brain
Jennifer Chan,, Abstract 115.14

  • There is limited knowledge on the molecular mechanisms underlying how pregnancy, childcare, and stressful experiences interact to produce long-term changes in brain health. - Mice that have given birth perform better on spatial learning tasks and display profoundly different patterns of gene expression in the hippocampus, a critical brain structure for learning and memory, compared with mice that have not given birth. However, chronic stress during the postpartum period completely abolishes these adaptive changes.
  • Factors that affect hippocampal gene expression may mediate long-term brain changes associated with reproduction.

Circuit Mechanisms Mediating Pro-Safety Network States in Rodent Affective Networks
Jamie Maguire,, Abstract 116.11

  • Brexanolone (allopregnanolone) was recently approved by the FDA for the treatment of postpartum depression based on long-lasting antidepressant effects, but how it works is not well understood.
  • In mice, allopregnanolone appears to regulate the coordination of neural activity across brain networks implicated in mood and emotional processing.
  • Information flow through these brain networks is disrupted by chronic stress, a major risk factor for depression and anxiety, but can be partially restored by allopregnanolone treatment, offering a possible mechanism for the drug’s persistent antidepressant effects.

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