Pregnancy represents one of the most extreme endocrine events of life, involving unequaled hormone surges that orchestrate widespread maternal adaptations. Animal studies have demonstrated reproduction-related neural and behavioral changes that are evident across the lifespan. However, remarkably little is known on the effects of this monumental transition on the human brain. I have previously shown—for the first time—that pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure, revealing the existence of a dramatic pregnancy-related neuroplasticity in humans. Building on these results and new pilot data, I propose a cutting-edge research project that aims to A) comprehensively map the changes manifesting in a woman’s brain by tracking core aspects of brain anatomy and function across pregnancy and the postpartum period, B) pinpoint key factors driving pregnancy-related neuroplasticity by means of an extensive profile of endocrine and lifestyle changes, and C) reveal the neural substrates for potential adaptive and maladaptive processes, focusing on specific functional domains highlighted by promising pilot results. I postulate that pregnancy-related changes in a woman’s brain not only underlie well-known adverse peripartum processes such as the development of mental health disorders and memory issues, but also comprise adaptive processes conferring long-lasting changes in specific domains of functioning that play a key role in—but are not restricted to—maternal caregiving. I will investigate this novel topic by means of an innovative prospective cohort study tracking women from before conception across pregnancy and into the postpartum period, which combines cutting-edge neuroimaging approaches with various psychopedagogic and biomedical measures. The proposed project has the potential to lay a firm foundation for this emerging field of human neuroscience and generate groundbreaking insights into a woman’s remarkable neurobiological journey to motherhood.
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