Brain plasticity in pregnancy and the postpartum period: links to maternal caregiving and mental health

Arch Womens Ment Health. 2019 Apr;22(2):289-299. doi: 10.1007/s00737-018-0889-z. Epub 2018 Jul 14.


Pregnancy and the postpartum period involve numerous physiological adaptations that enable the development and survival of the offspring. A distinct neural plasticity characterizes the female brain during this period, and dynamic structural and functional changes take place that accompany fundamental behavioral adaptations, stimulating the female to progress from an individual with self-directed needs to being responsible for the care of another life. While many animal studies detail these modifications, an emerging body of research reveals the existence of reproduction-related brain plasticity in human mothers too. Additionally, associations with aspects of maternal caregiving point to adaptive changes that benefit a woman's transition to motherhood. However, the dynamic changes that affect a woman's brain are not merely adaptive, and they likely confer a vulnerability for the development of mental disorders. Here, we review the changes in brain structure and function that a woman undergoes during the peripartum period, outlining associations between these neural alterations and different aspects of maternal care. We additionally discuss peripartum mood disorders and postpartum psychosis, and review the neuroimaging studies that investigate the neural bases of these conditions.

Keywords: Maternal attachment; Maternal behavior; Neuroplasticity; Perinatal mental health; Postpartum depression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Peripartum Period / psychology*
  • Postpartum Period / physiology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Puerperal Disorders / psychology