On a mother's mind

 In brain injury, development, gender, genetics, imaging genetics, social neuroscience

motherbrain1.jpgHaving a baby has a large impact on how we live our lives (trust me). But whereas men may react with amazement, wonder, even jealousy of being left aside, little actually happens to our bodies after birth. The changes that happen in women are far more obvious, not only during pregnancy but after birth also. The production of milk, and the possibility of conditional learning of milk production to the child’s crying is just one example of how body, brain and mind get tuned into caretaking.

Furthermore, studies of oxytocin, a mammalian hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, has been implicated in the bonding of the mother-infant attachment bond. Oxytocin is present in both sexes and is thought to be involved in social bonding, stress-reduction and orgasm, just to mention some. but the hormone seems to play a specific role in how mothers react to their newborns, and the establishment of a sound dyadic attachment. In this way, the brains of mothers change, both as a result of hormonal expression (loads of additional oxytocin) and the social interaction with the infant.

But did you know that some of the neurons in mothers’ brains actually stem from their babies? In other words: some of a mother’s brain cells are actually from the offspring.

This is just what a team of researchers from Singapore have found and published in the journal Stem Cells. It’s well known in this literature that fetal cells can enter the blood of circulation during pregnancy and remain there for many years after birth. These cells can, just as regular stem cells, develop into different kinds of tissue, including bone marrow, liver an spleen cells. But whether these cells can cross the blood-brain barrier has been less certain.


The expression of fetal stem cells in the mother’s cortex at 4 months after birth. Figure 1-H from the article.

This is exactly what the researchers found. By labelling fetal stem cells they discovered that these cells had indeed crossed the blood-brain barrier and moved into the brain. Furthermore, at measurement four days after pregnancy these cells had developed into neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes or macrophage-like cells. In other words, they developed just as any other stem cell.

So babies gets into their mothers’ minds in more than through hormonal and psychological mechanisms.

However, what is actually the function of these neurons is more unclear. Does the workings of fetal neurons have any significance for their relationship, or any particular mental function in mothers? This is indeed an opening field, and an eye-opener to many people (including myself when I first read it). No results have been reported in either direction as of yet.

What has been studied, however, is how these fetal stem cells can actually play a supporting role in the mother’s brain in the case of pathology. In addition to documenting that fetal stem cells enter the mother’s brain, the researchers added a condition involving brain lesion of the mother’s brain. What they found was just as surprising: after a lesion to the brain, more fetal cells were found in the lesioned region. So the baby’s cells seem tuned into helping the mother regain herself in the case of injury.
Mind-blowing as this finding may be, little is still known about this phenomenon. The development, mechanism, function and evolution of this process is just beginning to be explored. But it already raises a whole range of questions: can we measure a difference between mother’s and “non-mother’s” brains, both structurally and functionally? Does this “fetomaternal microchimerism” lead to any advantages (i.e. survival) in mothers? What is the range of variation in this kind of expression: are there “good” and “bad” fetuses? Are mothers of many children better off in any respect of those with fewer children? Or is this process just a question of striking the energy balance, the child “paying back” what it deprived the mother of during pregnagcy?

So a portion of yourself resides somewhere in your mother’s brain (and body). Children are indeed the result of their parents, but now it seems that children pay back, too.


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