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Pregnant and Fuzzy-Headed? It's Not Your Imagination

Research: It's a condition that many mothers-to-be experience. Now, a USC study shows that intellectual functioning is indeed depressed shortly before delivery.


For years, obstetrical nurses and mothers-to-be have called it "pregnancy brain" or"pregnancy-induced slowness." It's that fuzzy-headedness that can occur in the latter months of pregnancy, making it difficult to remember your next appointment or where you've left your keys.

Now, a small USC study suggests there's more than folklore behind the fuzzy-headed condition. Intellectual functioning is indeed depressed in women immediately before delivery, says J. Galen Buckwalter, research assistant at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center, whose team gave 19 women a battery of standard tests before they gave birth and then repeated them two to five weeks after delivery.

One test consisted of reading a list of 16 words to the women, then asking them to say the words back.

"This is the test where pregnant women fell apart," says Buckwalter, who presented his findings recently at the International Neuropsychological Society meeting in Florida.

While pregnant, the subjects also performed poorly on "dual tracking" tests (such as trying to remember a string of numbers and then repeating them backward) and on perceptual speed tests (such as connect-the-dot exercises).

Performance during pregnancy was 15% to 20% worse on the skills tested than performance after childbirth. More than 70% of the women tested had difficulty learning new information during their ninth month.

But pregnancy had no effect on the ability to retain verbal information over time, Buckwalter says, so women had no trouble accessing, for example, names of people or objects they had known for years. Nor was there an effect on overall intelligence, he says.

In a separate study, London researchers recently found that women's brains temporarily shrink during pregnancy, perhaps affecting concentration.

Buckwalter's findings surprised him, since his previous research on Alzheimer's disease, and that of others, has found that hormone replacement therapy is protective against the disorder and enhances memory.

So why isn't memory great during pregnancy, when estrogen soars? Buckwalter's not sure but speculates that the stress hormone cortisol, which also rises dramatically in late pregnancy, adversely affects the ability of the pregnant woman's brain to lay down new memory.

Meanwhile, his study results ring true for Elsa Ahumada, a 34-year-old medical secretary from South El Monte. During her pregnancies with her sons, now 6 and 2, she says, "I took more time to track things down, remembering what I did or didn't do."

And when she's not pregnant, she never needs a list at the grocery store.

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