Long-term association of pregnancy and maternal brain structure: the Rotterdam Study

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The peripartum period is the highest risk interval for the onset or exacerbation of psychiatric illness in women’s lives. Notably, pregnancy and childbirth have been associated with short-term structural and functional changes in the maternal human brain. Yet the long-term effects of pregnancy on maternal brain structure remain unknown. We investigated a large population-based cohort to examine the association between parity and brain structure. In total, 2,835 women (mean age 65.2 years; all free from dementia, stroke, and cortical brain infarcts) from the Rotterdam Study underwent magnetic resonance imaging (1.5 T) between 2005 and 2015. Associations of parity with global and lobar brain tissue volumes, white matter microstructure, and markers of vascular brain disease were examined using regression models. We found that parity was associated with a larger global gray matter volume (β = 0.14, 95% CI = 0.09–0.19), a finding that persisted following adjustment for sociodemographic factors. A non-significant dose-dependent relationship was observed between a higher number of childbirths and larger gray matter volume. The gray matter volume association with parity was globally proportional across lobes. No associations were found regarding white matter volume or integrity, nor with markers of cerebral small vessel disease. The current findings suggest that pregnancy and childbirth are associated with robust long-term changes in brain structure involving a larger global gray matter volume that persists for decades. Future studies are warranted to further investigate the mechanism and physiological relevance of these differences in brain morphology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-281
Number of pages11
JournalEuropean Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number3
Early online date6 Jan 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

The Rotterdam Study is supported by the Erasmus MC University Medical Center and Erasmus University Rotterdam; The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO); The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw); the Research Institute for Diseases in the Elderly (RIDE); The Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI); the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science; the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports; the European Commission (DG XII); and the Municipality of Rotterdam.


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