Fathers’ brains change when they are the primary caregiver

Gay fathers develop a pattern of brain activity that mirrors both that of new mothers and heterosexual fathers when they are lead caregivers

A new study has found that fathers’ brains are highly malleable and adapt to the level of responsibility they carry for the care of their infants.

In traditional heterosexual partnerships where the mother is primary caregiver, mothers and fathers show similar but distinct patterns of brain activity in response to their child. According to recent findings, gay fathers who take the lead role in caring for their baby show brain activity that combines both these patterns in an integrated way. For all fathers, the more time spent alone with their child, the stronger the synchrony between the different areas of the brain involved in parental care.

According to Ruth Feldman, researcher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and lead author of the study, the results indicate that by spending time taking care of their children, fathers can foster very similar bonds with them as mothers traditionally have. "Pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are very powerful primers in women to worry about their child's survival. Fathers have the capacity to do it as well as mothers, but they need daily caregiving activities to ignite that mothering network," Feldman told HealthDay.

The study, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, set out to investigate the neural circuits involved in parental caregiving. Feldman and her colleagues studied 89 first-time parents who all fell into one of three groups: Heterosexual primary-caregiving mothers, heterosexual fathers in a supporting parental role, and primary-caregiving homosexual fathers who were raising their children without the involvement of a woman. The researchers measured the neural activity of the mums and dads whilst they were being shown videos of themselves interacting with their children. The results led to the identification of a ‘parental caregiving’ neural network that is active in both men and women and consists of two integrated systems: An emotional processing circuit involving the amygdala, and a ‘mentalising’ circuit associated with social understanding and cognitive empathy.  One of the functions of the emotional circuit is to regulate a parent’s vigilance and awareness of the child’s safety, whereas the ‘mentalising’ circuit helps parents read their infant’s signals.

Although maternal and paternal care were found to have a common neural basis, there were distinctions between the female primary caregivers and the fathers in a secondary child-caring role. The mothers in the study showed more activity in the emotional circuit, whereas the heterosexual fathers exhibited a greater response in the cognitive circuit. In the group of gay fathers, both circuits were active and showed a high level of connectivity. There was no difference in masculinity and femininity between the straight and gay men in the study, thus ruling out any effect those traits might have had on the parental response. In addition, the more time the straight men spent alone with their children, the greater the connectivity between the two relevant regions of the brain.

“Fathers should engage in child-care activity because this is their pathway to brain changes and attachment,” Feldman told Bloomberg. “When mothers are around, fathers’ amygdala can rest and mothers do the worrying. When mothers are not around, fathers’ brains need to assume this function.”

As well as encouraging flexibility in parenting roles, the results of the study could have implications for the global debate on same-sex adoption.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss