The neurobiology of pregnancy and motherhood


Pregnancy represents a period of far-reaching biological changes, and it marks a crucial transition in a woman's life. During pregnancy, a woman is exposed to unparalleled surges of hormones. These hormones regulate a number of complex and very important adaptations, which for instance optimize the development and growth of her baby. All systems of a woman's body are in some way affected by pregnancy. Naturally, these hormones also exert an effect on her brain.


Converging evidence from animal studies has shown profound changes in brain and behavior as a results of pregnancy and motherhood, which are evident throughout the lifespan. However, remarkably little is known on the impact of pregnancy on the human brain. At the Hoekzema Lab, we aim to elucidate how a woman's brain is re-sculpted by the unique hormonal climate of pregnancy and the experiences of motherhood.


As part of this endeavour, various research studies are performed that investigate different aspects of the neurobiological journey to motherhood. We investigate these processes in the human brain by means of various neuroimaging approaches combined with physiological, hormonal and behavioral measures.  



Our research on this topic has already led to some very interesting findings. These have shown for instance that pregnancy renders substantial changes in a woman's brain, and that these likely play a role in the development of the unique bond between a mother and her baby. Here are a few highlights of our results so far:


  • Our first study on this topic showed that pregnancy renders strong changes in a woman's brain structure
  • Further analyses demonstrated that especially social brain regions are strongly affected by pregnancy
  • Remarkably, these changes are so consistent that a computer algorithm could automatically identify which women had been pregnant based only on the changes in brain structure
  • The brain changes of pregnancy are long-lasting, remaining intact for at least 2 years after delivery
  • The changes in brain structure during pregnancy can predict measures of mother-infant attachment after birth
  • The brain regions that are restructured during pregnancy include those brain regions that respond the most to the women's babies after birth
  • Pregnancy renders structural changes in a core part of the brain's reward circuit that predict its responsiveness to infant cues
  • The morphometric changes in a woman's brain across pregnancy are highly similar to those occurring in a girl going through adolescence, another transitional life phase involving increases in some of the same hormones
  • A recent follow-up indicated that pregnancy-induced brain changes remain until at least 6 years after giving birth


Exciting new results are expected soon!

We have recently completed several years of data collection for a large-scale prospective study and are currently analyzing these data. We have already encountered some very interesting results and will publish these in scientific journals. Key findings will also be mentioned on this website.


A few key publications:


E. Hoekzema, E. Barba- Müller, C. Pozzobon, M. Picado, F. Lucco, D. García-García, J.C. Soliva, A. Tobeña, M. Desco, E.A. Crone, A. Ballesteros, S. Carmona, O. Vilarroya (2017). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience 20(2): 287-296.


S. Carmona, M. Martinez Garcia, M. Paternina Die, E. Barba- Müller, L.M. Wierenga, Y. Alemán-Gómez, C. Petrus, L. Marcos-Vidal, L. Beumala, R. Cortizo, C. Pozzobon, M. Picado, F. Lucco, D. García-García, J.C. Soliva, A. Tobeña, J.S. Peper, E.A. Crone, A. Ballesteros, M. Desco, O. Vilarroya, E. Hoekzema (2019). Pregnancy and adolescence entail similar neuroanatomical adaptations: A comparative analysis of cerebral morphometric changes. Human Brain Mapping 40(7):2143-2152.


E. Hoekzema, C.K. Tamnes, P. Berns, E. Barba-Müller, C. Pozzobon, M. Picado, F. Lucco, M. Martínez-García, M. Desco, A. Ballesteros, E.A. Crone, O. Vilarroya, S. Carmona (2020). Becoming a mother entails anatomical changes in the ventral striatum of the human brain that facilitate its responsiveness to offspring cues. Psychoneuroendocrinology 112:104507.


E. Barba- Müller, S. Craddock, S. Carmona, E. Hoekzema, Brain plasticity in pregnancy and the postpartum period: Links to maternal caregiving and mental health (2019). Archives of Women’s Mental Health 22(2): 289-299.


M. Martínez-García, M. Paternina-Die, E. Barba-Müller, D. Martín de Blas, L. Beumala, R. Cortizo, C. Pozzobon, L. Marcos-Vidal, A. Fernández-Pena, M. Picado, E. Belmonte-Padilla, A. Massó-Rodriguez, A. Ballesteros, M. Desco, O. Vilarroya, E. Hoekzema, S. Carmona. Do Pregnancy-Induced Brain Changes Reverse? The Brain of a Mother Six Years after Parturition (2021). Brain Sci. 11(2):168.