The Mom Brain

Recently, I read an opinion titled When I Became A Mother, Feminism Let Me Down. The gist of it was that some feminists, while empowering women and girls to be anything they want to be and to do anything a man or a boy does, they fail in uplifting the motherhood aspect of a woman’s life, should she choose to become a mother. In other words, even (or especially, in some cases) feminists look down on the women who chose to switch from a paid job and professional career to an unpaid stay-at-home mom career, as if being a mother is somehow beneath what a woman can be and can achieve. As if raising the next generation of humans to be rational, informed, well-behaved social actors instead of ignorant brutal egomaniacs is a trifling matter, not to be compared with the responsibilities and struggles of a CEO position.

Patriarchy notwithstanding, a woman can do anything a man can. And more. The ‘more’ refers to, naturally, motherhood. Evidently, fatherhood is also a thing. But the changes that happen in a mother’s brain and body during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and postpartum periods are significantly more profound than whatever happens to the most loving and caring and involved father.

Kim (2016) bundled some of these changes in a nice review, showing how these drastic and dramatic alterations actually have an adaptive function, preparing the mother for parenting. Equally important, some of the brain plasticity is permanent. The body might spring back into shape if the mother is young or puts into it a devilishly large amount of effort, but some brain changes are there to stay. Not all, though.

One of the most pervasive findings in motherhood studies is that hormones whose production is increased during pregnancy and postpartum, like oxytocin and dopamine, sensitize the fear circuit in the brain. During the second trimester of pregnancy and particularly during the third, expectant mothers start to be hypervigilent and hypersensitive to threats and to angry faces. A higher anxiety state is characterized, among other things, by preferentially scanning for threats and other bad stuff. Threats mean anything from the improbable tiger to the 1 in a million chance for the baby to be dropped by grandma to the slightly warmer forehead or the weirdly colored poopy diaper. The sensitization of the fear circuit, out of which the amygdala is an essential part, is adaptive because it makes the mother more likely to not miss or ignore her baby’s cry, thus attending to his or her needs. Also, attention to potential threats is conducive to a better protection of the helpless infant from real dangers. This hypersensitivity usually lasts 6 to 12 months after childbirth, but it can last lifetime in females already predisposed to anxiety or exposed to more stressful events than average.

Many new mothers worry if they will be able to love their child as they don’t feel this all-consuming love other women rave about pre- or during pregnancy. Rest assured ladies, nature has your back. And your baby’s. Because as soon as you give birth, dopamine and oxytocin flood the body and the brain and in so doing they modify the reward motivational circuit, making new mothers literally obsessed with their newborn. The method of giving birth is inconsequential, as no differences in attachment have been noted (this is from a different study). Do not mess with mother’s love! It’s hardwired.

Another change happens to the brain structures underlying social information processing, like the insula or fusiform gyrus, making mothers more adept at self-motoring, reflection, and empathy. Which is a rapid transformation, without which a mother may be less accurate in understanding the needs, mental state, and social cues of the very undeveloped ball of snot and barf that is the human infant (I said that affectionately, I promise).

In order to deal with all these internal changes and the external pressures of being a new mom the brain has to put up some coping mechanisms. (Did you know, non-parents, that for the first months of their newborn lives, the mothers who breastfeed must do so at least every 4 hours? Can you imagine how berserk with sleep deprivation you would be after 4 months without a single night of full sleep but only catnaps?). Some would be surprised to find out – not mothers, though, I’m sure – that “new mothers exhibit enhanced neural activation in the emotion regulation circuit including the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (p. 50). Which means that new moms are actually better at controlling their emotions, particularly at regulating negative emotional reactions. Shocking, eh?

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Finally, it appears that very few parts of the brain are spared from this overhaul as the entire brain of the mother is first reduced in size and then it grows back, reorganized. Yeah, isn’t that weird? During pregnancy the brain shrinks, being at its lowest during childbirth and then starts to grow again, reaching its pre-pregnancy size 6 months after childbirth! And when it’s back, it’s different. The brain parts heavily involved in parenting, like the amygdala involved in the anxiety, the insula and superior temporal gyrus involved in social information processing and the anterior cingulate gyrus involved in emotional regulation, all these show increased gray matter volume. And many other brain structures that I didn’t list. One brain structure is rarely involved only in one thing so the question is (well, one of them) what else is changed about the mothers, in addition to their increased ability to parent?

I need to add a note here: the changes that Kim (2016) talks about are averaged. That means some women get changed more, some less. There is variability in plasticity, which should be a pleonasm. There is also variability in the human population, as any mother attending a school parents’ night-out can attest. Some mothers are paranoid with fear and overprotective, others are more laissez faire when it comes to eating from the floor.

But SOME changes do occur in all mothers’ brains and bodies. For example, all new mothers exhibit a heightened attention to threats and subsequent raised levels of anxiety. But when does heightened attention to threats become debilitating anxiety? Thanks to more understanding and tolerance about these changes, more and more women feel more comfortable reporting negative feelings after childbirth so that now we know that postpartum depression, which happens to 60 – 80% of mothers, is a serious matter. A serious matter that needs serious attention from both professionals and the immediate social circle of the mother, both for her sake as well as her infant’s. Don’t get me wrong, we – both males and females – still have a long way ahead of us to scientifically understand and to socially accept the mother brain, but these studies are a great start. They acknowledge what all mothers know: that they are different after childbirth than the way they were before. Now we have to figure out how are they different and what can we do to make everyone’s lives better.

Kim (2016) is an OK review, a real easy read, I recommend it to the non-specialists wholeheartedly; you just have to skip the name of the brain parts and the rest is pretty clear. It is also a very short review, which will help with reader fatigue. The caveat of that is that it doesn’t include a whole lotta studies, nor does it go in detail on the implications of what the handful cited have found, but you’ll get the gist of it. There is a vastly more thorough literature if one would include animal studies that the author, curiously, did not include. I know that a mouse is not a chimp is not a human, but all three of us are mammals, and social mammals at that. Surely, there is enough biological overlap so extrapolations are warranted, even if partially. Nevertheless, it’s a good start for those who want to know a bit about the changes motherhood does to the brain, behavior, thoughts, and feelings.

Corroborated with what I already know about the neuroscience of maternity, my favourite takeaway is this: new moms are not crazy. They can’t help most of these changes. It’s biology, you see. So go easy on new moms. Moms, also go easy on yourselves and know that, whether they want to share or not, the other moms probably go through the same stuff. You’re not alone. And if that overactive threat circuit gives you problems, i.e. you feel overwhelmed, it’s OK to ask for help. And if you don’t get it, ask for it again and again until you do. That takes courage, that’s empowerment.

P. S. The paper doesn’t look like it’s peer-reviewed. Yes, I know the peer-reviewing publication system is flawed, I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself, but it’s been drilled into my skull that it’s important, flawed as it is, so I thought to mention it.

REFERENCE: Kim, P. (Sept. 2016). Human Maternal Brain Plasticity: Adaptation to Parenting, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, (153): 47–58. PMCID: PMC5667351, doi: 10.1002/cad.20168. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 28 September 2018

Interview with Jason D. Shepherd, PhD

During the first week of the publication, a Cell paper that I covered a couple of weeks ago has received a lot of attention from media outlets, like The Atlantic, Scicasts and Neuroscience News/University of Utah Press Release. It is not my intention to duplicate here their wonderfully done summaries and interviews; rather to provide answers to some geeky questions arisen from the minds of nerdy scientists like me.

Dr. Shepherd, you are the corresponding author of a paper published on Jan. 11 in Cell about a protein heavily involved in memory formation, called Arc. Your team and another team from University of Massachusetts, who published in the same issue of Cell, simultaneously discovered that Arc looks like and behaves like a virus. The protein “infects” nearby cells, in this case neurons, with instructions of how to make more of itself, i.e. it shuttles its own mRNA from one cell to another.

Neuronicus: Why is this discovery so important?

​Jason D. Shepherd: I think there’s a couple of big implications of this work:

  1. ​The so called “junk” DNA in our genomes that come from viruses and transposable elements actually provide source material for new genes. Arc isn’t the first example, but it’s the first prominent brain gene to have these kinds of origins.

  2. This is the first demonstration that cellular proteins are capable of assembling into capsid-like structures. This is a completely new way of thinking about communication between cells.

  3. We think there may be other genes that can also form capsids, suggesting this method of signaling is fairly common in organisms.

N: 2) When you and your colleagues compared Arc’s genetic sequence across species you concluded Arc comes from a virus that infected four-legged animals some time ago. A little time later the virus infected the flies too. When did these events occur?

​JDS: So we think the origins are from a retrotransposon not a virus. These are DNA sequences or elements that “jump” into the host genome. Think of them as primitive viruses. Indeed, these elements are thought to be the ancestors of retroviruses like HIV. The mammalian Arc gene seems to have originated ~400 million years ago, the fly about 150 million years ago. ​

N: 3) So, if Arc has been so successfully repurposed by the tetrapod and fly ancestors to add memory formation, what does that mean for the animals and insects before the infection? I understand that we move now in the realm of speculation, but who better to speculate on these things than the people who work on Arc? The question is: did these pre-infection creatures have bad and short memories? The alternate view would be that they had similar memory abilities due to a different mechanism that was replaced by Arc. Which one do you think is more likely?

​JDS: Good question. It’s certainly the case that memory capacity improved in tetrapods, but unclear if Arc is the sole reason. I suspect that Arc confers some unique aspects to brains, otherwise it would not have been so conserved after the initial insertion event, but I also think there are probably other Arc-like genes in other organisms that do not have Arc. I will also note that we are not even sure, yet, that the fly Arc is important for fly memory/learning.

N: 4) Remaining in the realm of speculation, if this intercellular mRNA transport proves to be ubiquitous for a variety of mRNAs, what does that say of the transcriptome of a cell at any given time? From a practical point of view, a cell is what is made off, meaning the ensemble of all its enzymes and proteins and so on, collectively termed transcriptome. So if a cell can just alter its neighbor’s transcriptome array, does that mean that it’s possible to alter also its function? Even more outrageously speculative, perhaps even its type? Can we make cancer cells commit suicide by shooting Arc capsules of mRNA at them?

​JDS: Yes! Cool ideas. I think this is quite likely, that these signaling extracellular vesicles can dramatically alter the state of a cell. We are obviously looking into this. ​

N: 5) Finally, in the paper, the Arc capsules containing mRNA are referred to as ACBAR (Arc Capsid Bearing Any RNA). At first I thought it was a reference to “Allahu akbar” which is Arabic for ‘God is greatest’, the allusion being “ACBAR! Our exosome is the greatest!” or “Arc Acbar! Our Arc is the greatest!”. Is this where the naming is coming from?

​JDS: No no. As I said on twitter, my lab came up with this acronym because we are all Star Wars nerds and the classic “It’s a trap!” line from general Ackbar seemed apt for something that was trapping RNA. ​

Below is the Twitter exchange Dr. Shepherd refers to:

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Dr. Shepherd, thank you for your time! And congratulations on a well done paper and a well told story. Your Methods section is absolutely great; anybody can follow the instructions and replicate your data. Somebody in your lab must have kept great records. Congratulations again!

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The ACBAR graphic is from the Cell’s abstract (©2017 Elsevier Inc.) but since it’s for comedic purposes, I’d say is fair use. Same for the Lego Ackbar.

By Neuronicus, 28 January 2018

P. S. Since I have obviously managed to annoy the #StarWars universe and twitterverse because I depicted General Ackbar using a Jedi sword when he’s not a Jedi, I thought only fair to annoy the other half of the world, the #trekkies. So here you go:

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Arc: mRNA & protein from one neuron to another

EDIT 1 [Jan 17, 2018]: I promised four days ago that I will post this, while it was still hot, but my Internet was down, thanks to the only behemoth provider in USA. And rated the worst company in the Nation, too. You definitely know by now about whom I’m talking about. Grrrr…  Anyway, here is the paper:

As promised, today’s paper talks about mRNA transfer between neurons.

Pastuzyn et al. (2018) looked at the gene Arc in neurons because they thought its Gag sequence looks suspiciously similar to some retroviruses. Could it be possible that it also behaves like a virus?

Arc is heavily involved in the immune system, is essential for the formation of long-term memories, and is involved in all sorts of diseases, like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, among other things.

Pastuzyn et al. (2018) is a relatively long and dense paper, albeit well written. So, I thought that this time, instead of giving you a summary of their research it would be better to give you the authors’ story directly in their own words written as subtitles in the Results section (bold letters – the authors words, normal font – mine). Warning: this is a much more jargon-dense blog post than my previous one on the same topic and, because it is so much material, I will not explain every term.

  • Fly and Tetrapod (us) Arc Genes Independently Originated from Distinct Lineages of Ty3/gypsy Retrotransposons, the phylogenomic analyses tell us, meaning the authors have done a lot of computer-assisted comparisons of similar forms of the gene in hundreds of species.
  • Arc Proteins Self-Assemble into Virus-like Capsids. Arc likes to oligomerize spontaneously (dimers and trimers). The oligomers resemble virus-like capsids, similar to HIV.
  • Arc Binds and Encapsulates RNA. Although it loves its own RNA about 10 times more than other RNAs, it’s a promiscuous protein (doesn’t care which RNA as long as it follows the rules of stoichiometry). Arc capsids encapsulate both the Arc protein (maybe other proteins too?), its mRNA, and whatever mRNA happened to be in the vicinity at the time of encapsulation. Arc capsids are able to protect the mRNA from RNAases.
  • Arc Capsid Assembly Requires RNA. If there is no RNA around, the capsids are few and poorly formed.
  • Arc Protein and Arc mRNA Are Released by Neurons in Extracellular Vesicles. Arc capsid packages Arc protein & Arc mRNA into extracellular vesicles (EV). The size of these EVs is < 100nm, putting them in the exosome category. This exosome, which the authors gave the unfortunate name of ACBAR (Arc Capsid Bearing Any RNA), is being expelled from cortical neurons in an activity-dependent manner. In other words, when neurons are stimulated, they release ACBARs.
  • Arc Mediates Intercellular Transfer of mRNA in Extracellular Vesicles. ACBARs dock to the host cell and then undergo clathrin-dependent endocytosis, meaning they expel their cargo in the host cell. The levels of Arc protein and Arc mRNA peaks in a host hippocampal cell in four hours from incubation. The ACBARs tend to congregate around donor cell’s dendrites.
  • Transferred Arc mRNA Can Undergo Activity-Dependent Translation. Activating the group 1 metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR1/5) by application of the agonist DHPG induces a significant increase of the amount of Arc protein in the host neurons.

This is a veritable tour de force paper. The Results section has 7 sub-sections, each with multiple experiments to dot every i and cross every t. I’m eyeballing about 40 experiments. It is true that there are 13 authors on the paper from different institutions – yeay for collaboration! – but c’mon! Is this what you need to get in Cell these days? Apparently so. Don’t get me wrong, this is an outstanding paper. But in the end it is still only one paper, which means only one first author. The rest are there for the ride because for a tenure track application nobody cares about your papers in CNS (Cell, Nature, Science = The Central Nervous System of the scientific community, har, har) if you’re not the first author. It looks like the increasing amount of work you need to be published in top tier journals these days is becoming a pet peeve of mine as I keep mentioning it (for example, here).

My pet peeves aside, Pastuzyn et al. (2018) is an excellent paper that opens interesting practical (drug delivery) and theoretical (biological repurpose of ancient invaders) gates. Kudos!

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REFERENCE: Pastuzyn ED, Day CE, Kearns RB, Kyrke-Smith M, Taibi AV, McCormick J, Yoder N, Belnap DM, Erlendsson S, Morado DR, Briggs JAG, Feschotte C, & Shepherd JD. (11 Jan 2018). The Neuronal Gene Arc Encodes a Repurposed Retrotransposon Gag Protein that Mediates Intercellular RNA Transfer. Cell, 172(1-2):275-288.e18. PMID: 29328916. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.12.024. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate

P.S. I said that ACBAR is an unfortunate acronym because I don’t know about you but I for one wouldn’t want my discovery to be linked either with a religion or with terrorist cries, even if that link is done only by a small fraction of the population. Although I can totally see the naming-by-committee going: “ACBAR! Our exosome is the greatest! Yeay!” or “Arc Acbar! Our Arc is the greatest. Double yeay!”. On a second thought, it’s kindda nerdy geeky neat. I still wouldn’t have done it though…

By Neuronicus, 14 January 2018

EDIT 2 [Jan 22, 2018]: There is another paper that discovered that Arc forms capsids that encapsulate RNA and then shuttles it across the neuromuscular junction in Drosophila (fly). To their credit, Cell published both these papers back-to-back so no researcher gets scooped of their discovery. From what I can see, the discovery really happened simultaneously, so I modified my infopic to reflect that (both papers were submitted in January 2017, received in revised version on August 15, 2017 and published in the same issue on January 11, 2018). Here is the reference to the other article:

Ashley J, Cordy B, Lucia D, Fradkin LG, Budnik V, & Thomson T (11 Jan 2018). Retrovirus-like Gag Protein Arc1 Binds RNA and Traffics across Synaptic Boutons, Cell. 172(1-2): 262-274.e11. PMID: 29328915. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.12.022. ARTICLE

EDIT 3 [Jan 29, 2018]: Dr. Shepherd, the last author of the paper I featured, was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the implications of his and his team’s findings, answers which you will find here.

By Neuronicus, 22 January 2018