Working memory in pregnant women: Relation to estrogen and antepartum depression Journal Articles uri icon

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  • This article is part of a Special Issue "Estradiol and cognition". Subjective changes in concentration and memory are commonly reported by women during the second or third trimesters of pregnancy, but the nature of the problem is poorly understood. We hypothesized that these self-reports might reflect difficulties in working memory (WM). It was further hypothesized that antepartum depression (depression arising during pregnancy) may play an etiological role, either on its own or due to secondary changes in endocrine function or sleep. Using WM tasks that emphasized executive control processes mediated by the prefrontal cortex (PFC) we compared pregnant women tested at 34-36 weeks of gestation (n = 28) with age- and education-matched non-pregnant controls (n = 26). All pregnant women were screened for depression. Evidence of a WM disturbance was found, and was evident only among pregnant women showing depressive symptoms. In contrast, pregnant women who were not depressed showed WM performance that equalled, or even significantly exceeded, non-pregnant controls. No significant differences were observed on control tests of other cognitive functions. Multiple regression revealed that serum estradiol concentrations, along with severity of depressive affect but not sleep disruption, significantly predicted variation in the WM scores. In agreement with studies of estradiol and WM in other contexts, higher estradiol was associated with better WM, while higher levels of depressive symptoms predicted poorer WM. We conclude that memory disturbance during gestation might not be as widespread as commonly believed, but can be seen among women experiencing antepartum depression. The high level of WM performance found in healthy, non-depressed, pregnant women is discussed from an adaptationist perspective.


  • Hampson, Elizabeth
  • Phillips, Shauna-Dae
  • Duff-Canning, Sarah J
  • Evans, Kelly L
  • Merrill, Mia
  • Pinsonneault, Julia K
  • Sadée, Wolfgang
  • Soares, Claudio N
  • Steiner, Meir

publication date

  • August 2015