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Grandma Brain

I often think of my Grandma, my dad’s mom. I grew up in the same town as my grandparents in the Okanagan Valley of Western Canada, spent many Sunday dinners at their place, and learned much about my Ukrainian heritage (my grandparents were children of immigrants) from them. Grandma played a significant role in my life, not only for aspects related to my heritage, but also in terms of what it is to be a woman, partner, and mother — in the absence of social norms.

Recently I’ve been wondering how I may have impacted her.

My Grandparents. Mike and Rose Pawluski. (Circa 1990s)

I’m a neuroscientist, therapist, podcaster, and mom of 2 who often talks about the neuroscience of parenting; shedding light on just how amazing our mom brains are and how much more we need to know about brain changes with parenting in health and illness. I've written for ITM a few times now, which you can read here, here, and here.

For a while now I’ve been wondering how the brain changes in Grandparents.

Grandparental Brain?

In 2017 when I was co-organizing the 6th Parental Brain meeting in Toronto, Canada I remember thinking how amazing it would be to have some work on how grandparenting affects the brain. Are Grandparent’s brains activated by their grandchildren in the same way as they are with their children? If there are brain changes in grandparents do they relate to how much a grandparent cares for their children? Does having grandchildren impact brain health in grandparents? Oh, so many questions and oh, so few answers. In fact, at the time I couldn’t find a single paper looking at grandparenting and the brain — even though there was some work on how parenting affects the brain into ageing.

Fast forward to a few months ago, while speaking with Dr. Jim Rilling about his work on fatherhood and the brain for my podcast Mommy Brain Revisited he mentioned recent work that he was doing on brain changes in Grandmothers. As you can imagine I was excited!

Grandmas and Grandchildren

Dr. Rilling’s study, published in November 2021, was partially based on the idea that grandmas started living longer because they could help to raise their grandchildren — something referred to as the Grandmother Hypothesis.

There is science to back this hypothesis up and to me, it makes sense that an extra pair of hands would be beneficial when you’re having kids — someone else helping with childcare or food preparation, laundry, housecleaning, errands, etc.

How this Grandmother hypothesis works biologically isn’t quite sorted out but we now know that changes in the brain of grandmas may be important.

In his study on the grandmaternal brain, fMRI brain imaging techniques were used to see how a grandmother’s brain was activated in response to viewing pictures of her grandchild and whether this response was unique to the grandchild by comparing it to the activity of the brain when the grandma was viewing an unknown child of the same sex, race, and age.

The study showed that when viewing a picture of her grandchild, compared to viewing an unknown child of the same age and sex, grandmothers have increased activation in brain regions that are important in parenting. These ‘parental’ brain areas are important for aspects of motivation, emotional empathy, and understanding of others. The study also reports that this level of brain activation was not related to how much time the grandma spent with her grandchild — suggesting that a basic level of grandparenting impacts the brain.

Grandmas as Mothers

When looking at a picture of the grandchild’s parent (the grandma’s own child or child’s partner), the grandmother showed even more brain activation in these parental brain areas with the exception of brain regions involved in emotional empathy (the insula and secondary somatosensory cortex).

The fact that these brain areas related to empathy are highly activated when grandmas view their grandchildren, and not their children, begs the question of whether “Grandmothers may be more connected to grandchildren than to own offspring”, as the headline from the Guardian pointed out.

Maybe Grandmas are more connected, or maybe their relationship with their grandchild is simply different.

The Village

When I spoke with Jim about this study I still had so many questions. What about grandfathers, maternal versus paternal grandparents, the number of grandchildren, for starters? We joked that perhaps a family neuroscience research field needs to be developed to explore the neural connectivity of the social relationships that make up a family tree. Who knows what the future of neuroscience research will hold.

As I told a CNN reporter covering this research, the bottom line for me is that “This work points to the fact that there are important brain changes in members of a ‘village’ that raise a child. It’s not just the brain of birthing parents and partners that change.”

Twice My Child

I was visiting a friend and collaborator in Athens, Greece a few months ago and we started talking about the importance of Grandparents in Greek society. She told me they have a saying in Greece — “the child of my child is twice my child”. I think there is something to this — especially in the grandmaternal brain.

Photo by Nikoline Arns on Unsplash


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