I Knew My Son Changed My Life, But He May Have Changed My Brain Too

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I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things since having my son (gender roles and sleep-training are just a few), but now science suggests my mind may have been genetically altered during pregnancy. Also known as baby brain?

Researchers have discovered evidence that cells from a fetus can migrate into the brain of their mother.   The investigators analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women.  Since female DNA could not be easily distinguished from that of the mother’s, scientists looked for signs of male DNA, which, they reasoned, would have come from the cells of sons.

“Nearly two-thirds of the women — 37 of the 59 — were found to have traces of the male Y chromosome in multiple regions of their brains,” the report concludes.

The “blood-brain barrier” typically keeps cells (along with many drugs and germs) in the bloodstream from entering the brain and should technically prevent this cell swapping from happening.  However, doctors have found this defense mechanism becomes more permeable during pregnancy.  These so-called “leaky spots” get bigger as pregnancy reaches term and could be the source of fetal cells crossing to the mother.

Like the lifestyle changes that come with parenting, the determination of whether these cellular changes are “good” or “bad” is up in the air.  In fact, early studies are showing both.  Some of the positive results suggest fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers.  Some of the negative aspects are the increase in colon cancer risk and the onset of autoimmune diseases.

The most intriguing findings surrounded Alzheimer’s disease.   Of the 59 women tested, 33 were diagnosed with the disease.  They found the women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than the other women.  Could this mean my son has given me some level of protection against Alzheimer’s disease?   It’s still unclear.  After all, previous research suggested that the diagnosis was more common in women with multiple pregnancies when compared with women who had no children.

What scientists are sure of is the long-lasting effects of this cellular cross over.  One of the females studied was 94 years old and maintained the male fetal DNA in her brain.   It would be impossible to ignore there are “implications for the future health of women who are or previously have been pregnant,” says study researcher Diana Bianchi of Tufts Medical Center.

Science is showing that pregnancy could alter our DNA in ways that are dramatic and permanent.  But I don’t need a scientist to tell me I will never be the same after having my children.  The overwhelming love I feel when I catch them doing something adorable or clever is all the proof I need.  I’ve been changed to my core.

(photo: Anna Omelchenko / Shutterstock)