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B.C. professor using eye-tracking tech to study ‘mommy brain’

Vancouver Island University researcher examining how pregnant women recognize threats
Marla Morden, a VIU psychology professor, is using eye-tracking technology to study the phenomenon known as ‘mommy brain.’ (Vancouver Island University photo)

‘Mommy brain,’ a phenomenon viewed by some as cognitive decline in pregnant women, might actually be a beneficial adaptation that helps mothers protect their unborn children.

New research points to potential benefits from the phenomenon — also known as ‘baby brain’ — which is now being viewed as a time of re-organization of the brain during pregnancy and early post-partum.

At Vancouver Island University, psychology professor Marla Morden is using innovative technology to look into the its implications.

Morden said, in a VIU press release, that emerging evidence suggests pregnancy is a sensitive period for information processing when pregnant women appear to become more attuned to faces and facial expressions and seem to have better memory for faces.

“There are not only deficits happening, but we also think there are some areas where pregnant women show advantages in terms of their thinking and memory processes,” Morden said.

“There is some intriguing research showing that pregnant women are more vigilant to threat-related stimuli. This can be things like people who are sick because pregnant women’s immune systems are suppressed, which means the developing fetus can be more vulnerable to different pathogens.”

The professor is using eye-tracking glasses to measure eye movements, pupil position and dilation to collect data about what mothers are focusing on and what they are ignoring. Her study will expose mothers to posters of infants, people who are ill, and other faces. She also plans to study mothers interacting with their babies to learn what mothers concentrate on.

Results from other research is suggesting that when pregnant women are stressed, or experiencing anxiety or depression, it can have long-term negative impacts on the developing fetus. Understanding what captures pregnant women’s attention may help plan interventions and support mother and infant health, according to the release.

Morden is conducting her research thanks to $85,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund and other funding sources. Morden received the funding jointly with Yoichi Mukai, a VIU modern language studies professor.

The grant is helping to establish the Vancouver Island University eye-tracking hub, which will create capacity in the central Island region for non-invasive cognitive assessment research.

READ ALSO: VIU psychology student researching how social support motivates exercise

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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