Summary: Researchers find significant changes in the brains of fathers between the prenatal period and the postpartum period. The main changes occurred in cortical areas associated with visual processing, attention and empathy towards their baby.
Source: The conversation
The time fathers spend each week on child care has tripled over the past 50 years in the United States. The increase in fathers’ involvement in childrearing is even stronger in countries that have extended paid paternity leave or created incentives for fathers to take leave, such as Germany, Spain, Sweden and Iceland. And a growing body of research finds that children of engaged fathers do better on a range of outcomes, including physical health and cognitive performance.
Despite the increasing involvement of fathers in childcare and its importance in the lives of their children, there is surprisingly little research on how fatherhood affects men. Even fewer studies focus on the brain and the biological changes that might promote fatherhood.
It’s no surprise that the transition to parenthood can be transformative for anyone with a new baby. For women who become birth mothers, pregnancy-related hormonal changes help explain why a new mother’s brain might change.
But does fatherhood reshape the brains and bodies of men – who don’t directly experience pregnancy – in ways that motivate their parenting? We set out to explore this question in our recent study of first-time fathers in two countries.
The Effect of Pregnancy on a New Mom’s Brain
Recent research has found compelling evidence that pregnancy can enhance the neuroplasticity, or remodeling, of a woman’s brain structures. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have identified large-scale changes in women’s brain anatomy from before to after pregnancy.
In one study, Spanish researchers scanned mothers for the first time before conceiving and then again two months after giving birth. Compared to childless women, new mothers had smaller brain volumes, suggesting that key brain structures actually shrank during pregnancy and the early postpartum period.
The brain changes were so pronounced that an algorithm could easily differentiate the brain of a woman who had been through a pregnancy from that of a woman without children.
Throughout the brain, these changes are seen in gray matter, the neuron-rich layer of brain tissue. Pregnancy appears to affect structures in the cortex – the most recently evolved outer surface of the brain – including regions related to thinking about the minds of others, a process researchers call “theory of mind”.
The mothers also exhibit brain changes in the subcortex – the older structures tucked deeper in the brain that are linked to more primitive functions, including emotion and motivation.
Why do these structural brain changes occur after pregnancy?
Researchers believe these brain changes may facilitate mothers’ sensitive care of newborns, who require constant attention and cannot verbalize their needs. Indeed, when mothers see photos or videos of their own babies, it activates many of the same brain regions that changed the most during pregnancy. It seems plausible that new mothers’ brains change in ways that help them respond to and care for their newborn.
But what about fathers? They do not directly experience the pregnancy, but can also take care of the new baby.
Dads’ brains change too
As with practicing any new skill, the experience of caring for an infant could leave a mark on the brains of new parents. It’s what neuroscientists call experience-induced brain plasticity — like the brain changes that occur when you learn a new language or master a new musical instrument.
A rare but growing body of research observes this type of plasticity in fathers who experience the cognitive, physical, and emotional demands of caring for a newborn without going through pregnancy.
In terms of brain function, for example, gay fathers who are primary caregivers show stronger connections between parental brain regions when looking at their infants, compared to male secondary caregivers.
To learn more about brain plasticity in new dads, our research groups from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Gregorio Marañón in Madrid, associated with the BeMother project, collaborated on a new study.
We recruited 40 men – 20 from Spain and 20 from California – and put them through an MRI scanner twice: first during their partner’s pregnancy and then after their baby was 6 months old. We also included a control group of 17 childless men.
We found several significant changes in fathers’ brains from prenatal to postpartum that did not emerge in the childless men we followed during the same period.
In the Spanish and Californian samples, fathers’ brain changes appeared in regions of the cortex that contribute to visual processing, attention, and empathy for the baby.
What reshapes the brain of a new father?
The degree of brain plasticity in fathers may be related to how they interact with their babies. Although fathers in many parts of the world are increasingly involved in childcare, paternal involvement varies considerably from man to man.
This range of involvement may explain why we found more subtle brain changes in these fathers compared to those seen in first-time mothers. In fact, the brain changes in the fathers were nearly half the magnitude of the changes seen in the mothers.
The social, cultural and psychological factors that determine the degree of fathers’ engagement with their children may, in turn, influence changes in the fathering brain. Indeed, Spanish fathers, who, on average, have more generous paternity leaves than fathers in the United States, displayed more pronounced changes in brain regions that support goal-directed attention, which may help fathers adjust to cues from their infants, compared to California fathers. fathers.
This finding raises the question of whether family policies that increase the time fathers spend on infant care in the early postpartum period can help support brain development of fatherhood.
On the other hand, perhaps men who show more brain and hormone remodeling are also more motivated to participate in hands-on care.
Much more research is needed to unravel these issues and determine the best way to intervene with fathers who are at risk of having difficulty adjusting to parenting.
Despite the importance of fathers to child development, funding agencies have not tended to prioritize research on men who become fathers, but that may begin to change as new findings emerge. as these emerge.
Future studies with more detailed measures of postpartum caregiving may tell more about parental brain plasticity in men and women.
About this news on parenting and neuroscience research
Author: Darby Saxbe and Magdalena Martinez Garcia
Source: The conversation
Contact: Darby Saxbe and Magdalena Martínez García – The Conversation
Image: Image is in public domain
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