Cognitive Function Decline in the Third Trimester of Pregnancy Is Associated with Sleep Fragmentation

J Clin Med. 2022 Sep 23;11(19):5607. doi: 10.3390/jcm11195607.


During late pregnancy, sleep deterioration is regularly observed. In concert with these observations, in previous studies by other researchers, a slight objective cognitive decline in pregnant women has been found. Sleep is essential for memory consolidation. The hypothesis of the study was that cognitive impairment could be related to sleep deterioration during pregnancy. The study included 19 pregnant women in their third trimester of pregnancy (28−40 weeks, median 33 weeks (IQR 32−37)) recruited at the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Medical University of Warsaw, and 20 non-pregnant women as controls. The assessment was performed using the vocabulary subtest from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), D2 Test of Attention, OSPAN task (Operational Span Task) to assess cognitive performance, actigraphy to examine sleep parameters, and a set of self-report instruments: Athens Insomnia Scale (AIS), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), Ford Insomnia Response to Stress (FIRST), Regenstein Hyperarousal Scale (HS), and Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS). Although there were no differences between the groups in WAIS (p = 0.18), pregnant women had worse scores in working memory capacity (overall number of remembered letters: p = 0.012, WM span index: p = 0.004) and a significantly lower score in attention (p = 0.03). Pregnant women also had lower sleep efficiency (p = 0.001), more awakenings from sleep (p = 0.001), longer average awakenings (p < 0.0001), longer wake after sleep onset (WASO, p < 0.0001), and longer total time in bed (p < 0.0001). In psychological assessment, pregnant women had only a higher FIRST score (p = 0.02). Using mediation analysis, we found that frequent awakening might be the major factor contributing to deterioration in working memory performance, explaining almost 40% of the total effect. In conclusion, sleep fragmentation in the third trimester of pregnancy may impair working memory consolidation. Pregnant women often complain about poor daily performance as well as non-restorative sleep. In this study, we showed that there is a relationship between lower sleep quality in pregnancy and worse cognitive functioning. We can expect a cognitive decline in women with sleep disturbances in pregnancy. Therefore, we should pay more attention to the treatment of sleep disorders in pregnancy.

Keywords: actigraphy; attention; awakenings; pregnancy; working memory.

Grants and funding

Research and publication funds were provided by the Medical University of Warsaw from statutory funds intended to support research projects (1WJ/N/2022, funding nr 2022/EL/10660).