How Motherhood Makes You Smarter

New studies on rats show that being a mom does more than change her body, it may maximize her brainpower too

Research shows that mothers are better than others at problem solving, handling stress and at completing certain memory tasks. (© Ocean / Corbis)

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Are the maternal effects coming from just the process of being pregnant or is the exposure to the pups after mothers are pregnant, or is it a combination of both? There is a lot of evidence that just being exposed to pups, in absence of pregnancy can actually be helpful.

Then, being a dad, I want to know what dads can do to be smarter. This is the question I get a lot when I talk about this work. Well, I am not ever going to be a mother, what can I do? It can be dads or any sort of non-mothers. There is evidence that hormone therapy works, that estrogen can help the brain a little bit. Or, what is the role maybe of other environmental enrichment? Is there a way to boost your brain without becoming a mother?

What are you currently working on?

This summer, I am working with an undergraduate here at Longwood University looking at mothers and their relationships with their own pups versus other pups—alien or adopted pups. Previous research has shown that if you put a mother rat in a cage with a pile of rat pups, that mother will be able to go in and identify her pups. She’ll pick them up, gather them and care for them, do the whole maternal process with those pups, but then she will also take care of the other pups. She will care for them, make a nest and keep them warm and feed them.

Behavior studies have been done on that, but not any of the underlying neurological processes. This summer, we’ll set up these scenarios: moms with just their pups, moms with just alien pups and then moms with this mixed groups of pups. We will try to find out what if any differences there are in the actual behavior. How quickly are pups retrieved and cared for? Are there differences in the amount of care that their own versus alien pups get? Then we’ll look at the brain regions underneath and say, are there different reactions neurologically in a response to one’s own pups versus another? I notice that as a parent, I am much more interested in looking out for other kids than I was when I wasn’t a father. So, what is going on in the brain there?

One of the things that I find very exciting—we published it last year—was a study showing that mothers actually recover more quickly from a traumatic brain injury. Can we compare non-mom rats with mothers and see if there is a way that we can start getting some of these neural benefits to individuals who for one reason or another aren’t going to have children? Is there a mechanism there, maybe just in terms of enrichment in the environment that could lead to neuro-protective benefits? I think there are a lot of implications for it—from individuals who suffer in car accidents to the NFL. 

Has your research and what you’ve learned affected your relationship with your own mother? 

It has. I have been fortunate; I am close with my mom. My research on this topic coincided quite closely to the birth of my first child. Combining that type of research with my own experience of taking care of my daughter, I have a lot of respect for my mom and what she did taking care of me growing up. I probably still don’t call home enough.


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