Men’s brains change when they become dads

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The question:

Is it true that men’s brains change when they become fathers?

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The science:

Parenting requires unique skill sets. Mothers and fathers need to anticipate their children’s needs, and understand and care for them, often with no experience and on very little sleep. So, it’s not surprising that parents would need to adapt to be successful in their new roles, some researchers said.

Studies have shown, for instance, that when women become pregnant and after they give birth, physical changes occur in their brains that, some researchers suspect, may help prepare women for motherhood.

And research shows that new fathers go through similar changes.

The brain changes that men experience may support “the ability to form a bond with the baby and connect sensitively to the baby because that’s important for our species’ survival,” said Darby Saxbe, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who has been studying structural brain changes.

Saxbe and her then colleagues in Spain conducted brain-imaging studies on 40 expectant fathers before and after the birth of their first child, she said. The researchers discovered that while the structural changes were more subtle than what has been observed in women, men experienced a reduction in gray matter before and after they became fathers.

The researchers noted that these changes occurred primarily in the cerebral cortex, which plays a role in executive functioning, including memory, thinking, reasoning, learning, problem-solving and emotional processing. This reduction, a type of streamlining process, is thought to help the brain process information more efficiently, Saxbe said.

Indeed, in a follow-up study, Saxbe and a colleague found that among 38 first-time fathers, those who experienced more-significant reduction in gray matter volume in the cerebral cortex reported more motivation and engagement toward parenthood.

“They felt more bonded with their babies before birth,” she said. “And then, subsequently, they spent more time with their babies as a primary caregiver.”

Men also experience changes in hormones before and after becoming fathers.

One study showed that the first time they hold their newborns, fathers get a boost of oxytocin, which is important for bonding.

Another study of more than 600 men found that those in their early 20s who had higher levels of testosterone were more likely to become partnered fathers by the follow-up period four years later. Then, those who became partnered fathers experienced significant declines in testosterone, compared with single nonfathers, who saw modest declines.

Higher testosterone levels in men, among other things, help facilitate competition in pursuing partnerships with future mates. “So the idea is that declining testosterone as men are transitioning to fatherhood resets focus and priorities … onto the family,” said Lee Gettler, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and lead author of the testosterone study.

Gettler and his colleagues saw some complementary results in men who became fathers again by their early 30s. The results were less dramatic for the older fathers, however, possibly because men produce less testosterone as they age, said Gettler, also the director of the Hormones, Health and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

In another study, reduced testosterone and increased cortisol, the stress hormone, in men who had just become fathers was linked to greater parental involvement in the months that followed.

Not as much is known about the changes that occur in men who become stepfathers or adoptive fathers, experts said.

Gay fathers who were primary caregivers exhibited high activation in the emotional processing center of the brain, similar to that of mothers who were primary caregivers, one study showed.

“Men’s bodies are preparing for the demands of parenthood in some ways that are parallel to what mothers experience but, in other ways, are distinct or specifically evolved in fathers to help them focus on the needs of their partners and their kids,” Gettler said.

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What else you should know:

While gray matter reduction in first-time fathers may contribute to better bonding and engagement, the changes are also linked to a greater risk of postpartum depression, anxiety and poor sleep quality in men.

“It’s more of a mixed bag,” Saxbe said.

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The bottom line:

From structural brain changes to shifts in hormones, men’s bodies appear to adapt to help prepare them for fatherhood.



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