A UBC neuroscientist says motherhood permanently alters the brain, exposing moms to different health risks than women without children.

Liisa Galea, a professor in the university's psychology department, says some changes are temporary while others are permanent.

The most obvious example is size. According to Galea, a mother's brain shrinks by up to eight per cent during pregnancy. While it bounces back about six months after birth, she notes the reaction could have repercussions.

“Our research shows that, as a result of these transformations, mothers experience different cognitive abilities and health risks than women without children,” said Galea.

And she warns that women who’ve borne children may even react to medication differently.

Liisa Galea

UBC neuroscientist Liisa Galea is researching how pregnancy affects female brains. (University of British Columbia)

“If mothers’ brains are different than other women’s brains, as our research finds, it means we must embrace greater personalization of medical care – not only for men versus women, but even among women with different life experiences,” she said.

But that’s a challenge that may be insurmountable given that medical research studies at the animal model level have relied predominantly on the use of male rats.

“Why would we assume that what works in a male rat automatically works in a female patient before testing it on a female rat?” questioned Galea.

She claims one of the big failures of translational studies is that most fail to acknowledge how subjects’ gender, or other unique characteristics, like motherhood, plays a role.

On the positive side, motherhood has well-documented protective effects, including significantly lower risks of gynecological cancers, including breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.