Does Motherhood Increase Brain Power?

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A study conducted by Adam Franssen of Longwood University and Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond (both in central Virginia), suggests that moms of rats have enhanced problem-solving skills, more effective mechanisms to cope with stress and a greater ability to remember to plan or complete a future task than their male counterparts. This may come as no surprise to you moms out there (we know you’re nodding your heads in agreement), but the question remains, “Why?”

Franssen, a Longwood University assistant professor of biology, enlisted to help of his students to analyze rat brains for neurological evidence of prospective memory: the ability to plan or do a future task. Behavioral studies have shown that mother rats are much better at using this form of future thinking than their male counterparts.

Franssen and his students are currently studying samples of rat brain tissue so thin they can barely be seen, and staining them to identify recently-used neurons. They will then compare this data to normal neurological activity, and identify areas of the brain used to perform this activity. Once they locate these areas, they should be able to narrow down the neuron responsible for prospective memory.

The work is being done in collaboration with faculty and students at the University of Richmond, who have performed behavioral experiments on rats and concluded that mother rats do, in fact, use prospective memory. In their tests, the rats stored food for their pups when they knew none would be available in the future, while male rats were generally uninterested in pups and only thought about feeding themselves. The mother rats in the studies would even risk danger to gather food and store it when they knew none would be available later. They also filled up on water. Franssen said this shows they understand and are planning for future situations.

“This is another brick in the wall of the larger theory that mothers gain an advantage,” Franssen says. “It has already been shown that they plan better, more effectively cope with stress and have better problem-solving skills. At Longwood, we are looking at what happens in the brain when they are doing that planning.”

The larger question is to find out what happens inside the brain to cause this behavior. Franssen suggests hormones rewire the mother rats’ brains. Certain switches turn on and unlock traits and behaviors. Or, perhaps, smelling and hearing her pups activates a dormant part of the mother rat’s brain.

“The exciting part about this research is that it’s open-ended,” Franssen says. “We don’t know what we are going to find or where it will take us. There are a thousand roads we could go down,” Franssen says.

If Franssen and his students find evidence to support the study’s conclusions, it could strengthen the larger argument that “motherhood conveys concrete neurological advantages,” Kinsley, a professor at the University of Richmond who led the behavioral experiments in the study, says. Learn more at (search for Mother Rats).

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