The Female Brain: Pregnant with Design

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BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 25, 2017

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son.”

–John 19:26

I’ve learned the hard way: It is best to be circumspect when offering commentary about pregnancy, especially when women are around.

So, it’s with some hesitation I bring up the latest scientific insight developed by a team of researchers from Spain. These investigators discovered that pregnancy alters a woman’s brain. In fact, pregnancy reduces her grey matter.1 (Okay Fuz. Hold your tongue. Don’t say what you’re thinking.)

But, as it turns out, the loss of grey matter is a good thing. In fact, it reveals the elegant design of the human brain and adds to the growing evidence of human exceptionalism. This scientific advance also has implications for the pro-life movement.

The Spanish research team was motivated to study brain changes in pregnant women because of the effects that sex hormones have on adolescent brains. During this time, sex hormones cause extensive reorganization of the brain. This process is a necessary part of the neural maturation process. The researchers posited that changes to the female brain should take place, because of the surge of sex hormones during pregnancy. While pregnant, women are exposed to 10 to 15 times the “normal” progesterone levels. During nine months of pregnancy, women are also subjected to more estrogen than the rest of their life when not pregnant.

To characterize the effect of pregnancy on brain structure, the research team employed a prospective study design. They imaged the brains of women who wanted to become pregnant for the first time. Then, they imaged the brains of the subjects once the women had given birth. Finally, they imaged the brains of the subjects two years after birth, if they didn’t become pregnant again. As controls, they imaged the brains of women who had never been pregnant and the brains of the fathers.

The Effects of Pregnancy on Women’s Brains

While the brain’s white matter is unaffected, the researchers found that pregnancy leads to a loss of grey matter that, minimally, lasts up to two years. They also discovered that the grey matter loss was not random or arbitrary. Instead, it occurred in highly specific areas of the brain. In fact, the grey matter loss was so consistent from subject to subject that the researchers could tell if a woman was pregnant or not from brain images alone.

As it turns out, the area of the brain that loses grey matter is the region involved in social cognition that harbors the theory-of-mind neural network. This network allows human beings to display a quality anthropologists call theory of mind. Along with symbolism, our theory-of-mind capacity makes us unique compared to other animals, providing scientific justification for the idea of human exceptionalism. As human beings, we recognize that other humans possess a mind like ours. Because of that recognition, we can anticipate what others are thinking and feeling. Our theory-of-mind capability makes possible complex social interactions characteristic of our species.

Even though the pregnant women lost grey matter, they showed no loss of memory or cognitive ability. The researchers believe that the loss of grey matter stems from synaptic pruning. This process occurs in adolescents and is a vital part of brain development and maturation. Through the loss of grey matter, neural networks form. The research team posits that synaptic pruning in pregnant women establishes a neural network that plays a role in the deep attachment mothers have with their children. This attachment helps mothers anticipate their babies’ needs. The deep social connection between mother and child is critical for human survival, because human infants are so vulnerable at birth and have a prolonged childhood.

In support of this proposal, the researchers found that when they showed the pregnant women pictures of their babies, the brain areas that lost grey matter became active. On the other hand, they saw no corresponding brain activity when the mothers were shown pictures of other babies.

The Case for Human Exceptionalism Mounts

This work highlights the elegant design of human pregnancy and child rearing—features that I take as evidence for a Creator’s handiwork. It is nothing short of brilliant to have the surge of sex hormones during pregnancy, priming the brain to ensure a close attachment between mother and child, at the time of birth and throughout the first few years of childhood.

More importantly, this work adds to the mounting scientific evidence for human exceptionalism. Not only do humans uniquely possess theory of mind, but our theory-of-mind neural network is more complex and sophisticated than previously thought. It is remarkable that this neural network can be adapted and fine-tuned to ensure an intimate mother-infant attachment while maintaining relationships in the midst of complex social surroundings, typical of human interactions.

As an interesting side note: Recent research indicates that for Neanderthals, the area of their brain devoted to maintaining social interactions was much smaller than the corresponding area in modern humans, highlighting our unique and exceptional nature even when compared to the hominids found in the fossil record.2

Pro-Life Implications

In my view, this work also has pro-life implications. I frequently hear pro-choice advocates argue that the fetus is a mass of tissue, just like a tumor. But, this study undermines this view. It is hard to think of a fetus as being just a lump of tissue, when such a sophisticated system is in place during pregnancy to form a neural network (that is, a subset of the theory-of-mind network) in the mother’s brain that generates the special capacity of the mother to bond with the fetus at birth.

It also raises concerns for the health of women who receive abortions. Though speculative, one has to wonder what effect prematurely terminating a pregnancy has on women whose brains have become fine-tuned to bond to the very infants that are destroyed by the abortion.

Resources

Placenta Optimization Shows Creator’s Handiwork” by Fazale Rana (article)
Curvaceous Anatomy of the Female Spine Reveals Ingenious Obstetric Design” by Virgil Robertson (article)
Does the Childbirth Process Represent Clumsy Evolution or Good Engineering?” by Fazale Rana (article)
Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endnotes

  1. Elseline Hoekzema et al., “Pregnancy Leads to Long-Lasting Changes in Human Brain Structure,” Nature Neuroscience, published electronically December 19, 2016, doi:10.1038/nn.4458.
  2. Eiluned Pearce, Chris Stringer, and R. I. M. Dunbar, “New Insights into Differences in Brain Organization between Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280 (May 2013): doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.0168.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2017/01/25/the-female-brain-pregnant-with-design

Placenta Optimization Shows Creator’s Handiwork

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BY FAZALE RANA – OCTOBER 19, 2016

The Creator of the universe desires an intimate relationship with each of us.

It is one of the more outrageous claims of the Christian faith. And no passage of Scripture expresses the intimacy between Creator and creature more than Psalm 139:13.

A fresh perspective on this passage of Scripture comes from recent work by researchers from Cambridge University in the UK. This study reveals the central role the placenta plays in properly allocating nutritional resources between mother and child, illustrating the intimate care God provided for us through the elegant design of embryological development.1

This research also has important pro-life implications, providing a response to the claim that the fetus is nothing more than a harmful mass of tissue.

Nutritional Demands of the Fetus and the Mother

For a pregnancy to be successful, nutrients must be carefully distributed between the fetus and the mother. Yet sharing nutrients runs contrary to the biological tendencies of the mother and the unborn baby. The fetus has a genetic drive for growth and craves all the nutrients it can get. So does the mother. But for the fetus to grow and develop, the mother must provide it with the nutrients it needs, setting up a potential tug of war between the mother and the developing baby in her womb.

Ironically, if the fetus hoards nutrients excessively, the hoarding can backfire. If the mother doesn’t have access to sufficient nutrients during the pregnancy, it can negatively impact lactation and the mother’s long-term health, which, in turn, compromises her ability to care for the child after birth.

As it turns out, the placenta plays a critical role in managing this trade-off. Instead of being passive tissue that absorbs available nutrients from the mother, the placenta dynamically distributes nutrients between mother and fetus, optimally ensuring the health of both mother and developing baby. To do this, the placenta receives metabolic signals from both the mother and fetus and responds to this input by regulating the nutrient amounts made available to the fetus.

One of the key genes involved in nutrient regulation is called p110α. This gene codes for a protein that integrates the metabolic signals from mother and fetus. The Cambridge University researchers wanted to understand the role that the maternal and fetal versions of this gene play in parsing the nutrient supply between mother and developing baby.

What Happens When p110α Is Defective in Mother and Child?

What happens when p110α is defective in mother and child? To answer this question, the research team used mice as a model system, preparing genetic mutants, so that either the mother or fetus had a defective version of the p110α gene. If the mother had a healthy p110αgene, but the fetus a defective version, the placenta developed abnormally. But in spite of its defective appearance, the placenta compensated so that it would still take up the nutrients the fetus needed to develop. However, if the mother had a defective version of the p110αgene, the placenta (which formed abnormally even though the fetus had a healthy version of the p110α gene) transported fewer nutrients to the fetus.

In adult tissue, the p110α gene plays a role in regulating growth in relationship to nutrient supply and mediates the metabolic effects of insulin and insulin-like growth factors. That means that a defective version of this gene models conditions in which the mother’s health is compromised due to disease, poor nutrition, stress, or other factors.

On the basis of this study, it appears that when the mother is healthy, the placenta readily transports nutrients to the fetus and dynamically adjusts, even if it forms abnormally. On the other hand, if the mother’s health is compromised, the placenta restricts nutrient flow to the fetus to ensure the mother’s long-term health, with the prospects that the fetus can still grow and develop.

This insight has important biomedical implications. In the developing world, one in five pregnancy complications involve the placenta. In the developed world, this number is one in eight. The researchers hope that this insight will help them understand the etiologies behind problem pregnancies and also help them identify biomarkers that will alert physicians to problems earlier in the pregnancy.

This work also has important apologetics implications, as well.

Indeed, We Are Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

This work highlights the elegance of embryological development. It seems an exquisite rationale—a biological logic, if you will—undergirds every aspect of development. The optimal way the placenta partitions resources between mother and fetus, carefully managing trade-offs, evinces the handiwork of the Creator, and reveals the Creator’s intimate care for the fetus.

The devastating effects caused by mutations to the p110α gene raises questions about the capacity of evolutionary mechanisms to explain the origin of the reproductive system in placental mammals. Because the placenta is not a passive conduit for nutrients between mother and fetus, the challenges of explaining its genesis via unguided evolutionary process become insurmountable. If the placenta lacks the capability to effectively allocate resources between the mother and fetus—or even if this process operates in a suboptimal manner—the fetus may not survive, or the mother may not be healthy enough to nurse and rear the child once it’s born. In other words, it becomes difficult to imagine how the placenta’s role in embryological development could evolve from an imperfect system to an optimal system under the influence of natural selection because of the critical, dynamic role the placenta plays in embryological development. If this role isn’t properly executed, the child isn’t likely to make it to reproductive age.

Is the Fetus Like a Tumor?

This work also has implications for the pro-life debate. I have often heard pro-choice advocates argue that abortion is not murder, because the fetus is like a tumor. But the work by the scientists from Cambridge University makes this view impossible. Because the placenta dynamically allocates resources between the mother and the fetus in a way that preserves the mother’s health, the fetus cannot be viewed as a tumor robbing the mother of nutrients. Instead, it looks as if the placenta’s function has been designed in such a way to ensure optimal health for both the mother and the fetus. This study also shows that if the mother’s health is in jeopardy, the placenta actually compromises the health of the fetus so that the mother’s health is not unduly harmed by the pregnancy.

Resources
Curvaceous Anatomy of the Female Spine Reveals Ingenious Obstetric Design” by Virgil Robertson (article)
What Are the Odds of You Being You?” by Matthew McClure (article)
Morning Sickness May Protect Embryos from Toxins” with Fazale Rana (podcast)

Endnotes

  1. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri et al., “Maternal and Fetal Genomes Interplay through Phosphoinositol 3-Kinase (PI3K)-p110α Signaling to Modify Placental Resource Allocation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 113 (October 2016): 11255–60, doi:10.1073/pnas.1602012113.
Reprinted with permission by the author
Original article at:
https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2016/10/19/placenta-optimization-shows-creator’s-handiwork