Study finds men’s brains change after babies arrive
Psychologist Darby Saxbe leads the Center for the Changing Family and a research effort to explore how parents change biologically and neurobiologically in response to their babies – all at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Saxbe, an associate professor, recently published a study in the journal Cerebral Cortex and found evidence that men develop a sort of “daddy brain” after their babies are born, much like how mothers’ brains change. in response to their newborns. She explained why it’s important to study these changes in parents and what she hopes to address next.
Why are you studying these changes in the brains of parents? What do you hope to understand?
Parenthood is extremely important for society and public health, but it is also understudied from a neurobiological perspective. We hope our research can inform public policies such as paid family leave and other initiatives that support new parents.
What is neuroplasticity and what does it generally mean? Why would that change when you become a parent?
We are still learning about neuroplasticity, but there is evidence that the brain changes and grows when we develop a new skill, like learning a musical instrument, or during developmental windows like infancy and adolescence. Becoming a parent involves changes in your lifestyle and biology and requires new skills like being able to empathize with a non-verbal baby, so it makes sense – but hasn’t been proven – that the brain be particularly plastic during the transition to parenthood. .
What is the “brain network of parental care”? Does this also exist for mothers?
Yes – it exists for mothers – it refers to areas of the brain that have been shown to be involved in parenting or caregiving (and pregnancy and breastfeeding) in human and animal studies.
The study shows that you have found changes in the network in default mode. What is this network and what do these changes mean for men who are new fathers? What does this mean for their partners?
The default mode network refers to regions of the brain that “light up” when the brain is at rest (not performing a particularly cognitive task). These regions are thought to be involved in mentalizing the thoughts and feelings of others. The fact that we found changes in this part of the brain for both fathers and mothers suggests that there is some social brain remodeling going on.
You notice that these changes occur in the cortex. What is the cortex responsible for, especially when it comes to parenthood?
The cortex is the newer part of the brain that is involved in attention, planning, and executive functioning and is more unique to humans. The subcortical regions (beneath the cortex) are the most basic brain structures you see in animals, involved in the detection of rewards, threats, and salience. In moms, we see both subcortical and cortical changes…in dads, we just saw cortical changes. It’s too early to speculate with such a small sample size, but it could suggest higher-order processing involved specifically in paternity.
It is also noted here that the volumes of the male visual network have decreased. Do you have any hypotheses about the reasons that would lead to changes in the visual system?
We’re not sure, although visual cues may be particularly important for orienting to offspring and understanding their needs, since infants are non-verbal.
Based on your findings, what do you want to explore next?
We plan to study individual differences in fathers’ brain changes that are associated with hormones and parenthood.
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