Fatherhood and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Many of us will celebrate Father’s Day this weekend. Let’s face it, dads matter! But what determines whether a dad will be devoted or not? Defining paternal dedication is a vast field of study, but according to scientists, much of paternal behavior seems to boil down to just a few brain basics. Because the entry into fatherhood isn’t cued with the same slew of physiological changes that accompany pregnancy and motherhood, the biological and chemical bases of paternal behavior have remained somewhat mysterious.

However, recent discoveries show that, across all vertebrates, the recipe for a good dad is actually more clean-cut: think more like mom. “As males become paternal, their brains become more like females’.” The big question: What drives fathering behavior in the first place? Well, it turns out that, even without pregnancy and childbirth to prime them, the brains of new fathers undergo many of the same changes as their female mates. Some of this may be triggered by being exposed to maternal behaviors and hormones even before the arrival of offspring.

In other cases, the birth of an infant can stimulate the brain of a new father via touch, smell or sight. In females, there’s physiological changes prior to maternal care, because females play a larger role in terms of their metabolic investment in offspring, but the priming to cue fatherhood is a lot more subtle. These changes include increases in a few hormones that have massive effects on the brain, like oxytocin, estrogen, and prolactin. Oxytocin, famously nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” appears to play a well-established role in parent-infant bonding, particularly in the days following birth.

For instance, recent research shows that male non-human primates making more oxytocin seem to be more responsive to needy infants. Estrogen and prolactin can also make a big difference in readying dads for childcare. In fact, the male body will actually repurpose some of its existing resources to achieve these attentive effects. Testosterone, which occurs in abundance in most male bodies, can be converted to estrogen, during their mates’ pregnancies and in the months after birth.

The testosterone levels of new fathers, including in humans and primates, will actually plummet as estrogen builds up instead, encouraging fathers to nurture their young. And while prolactin is critical for the production of milk in new mothers, it can also be responsible for many of the symptoms of pregnancy: nausea, weight gain, and fatigue. Fathers who sort of pack on those “sympathy” pounds, collecting extra fat in their belly area, may actually be pumping out prolactin themselves. There’s even some evidence in non-human primates that this increased energy storage is a way for dad to prep for the taxing emotional and physical tolls of fatherhood.

I’m sure researchers will continue to study the differences in fathers’ brain changes that are associated with hormones and parenting. In the meantime, to all the amazing dads out there, Happy Father’s Day. You deserve it! Wanna learn more about your brain and how it functions? Call and schedule your bran map today.

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Posted on

June 14, 2023