There are several studies that have been commissioned to study the brain of mothers and the changes that occur in it as the main caregiver at the birth of their baby. They have found that this organ grows after delivery and adapts to better care for the baby. However, it is not as investigated if the same happens in parents and how are these changes to occur.
It is a great opportunity to learn how the parenting experience can shape the human brain when pregnancy is not experienced directly, as is the case with men.
A new study led by psychologist Darby Saxbe of the University of Southern California found evidence that men also develop a kind of “daddy brain” after their baby is born.
Neuroplasticity in parents
The new fatherhood is a time of adaptation, when dads are learning to care for their babies, read their signals and communicate with them.
“All of that really requires the brain to grow and change and develop to accommodate that new behavioral repertoire,” Saxbe says.
The human brain goes through changes at various times in life, including in early childhood and adolescence. People also have brain plasticity when they learn a new skill like playing a musical instrument or speaking a new language. Becoming a parent involves changes to your lifestyle and biology, and requires new skills, such as being able to empathize with a nonspeaking baby, so it makes sense that the brain is also particularly plastic during the transition to parenthood .
Being a parent produces changes in the social brain
To study the issue, researchers from the United States and Spain scanned the brains of 40 expectant parents, half in each of the two countries. They also included a comparison group of 17 childless men whose brains were scanned.
The Spanish researchers scanned the brains of the 20 fathers before their partners became pregnant and again about two to three months after giving birth. US researchers scanned the brains of expectant parents when their partners were in their third trimester, at about 30 weeks. They scanned them again when the babies were 7 or 8 months old.
They found that the results were less striking than in the case of the mothers, and that the brain changes in the men were specifically only in the upper layer of the cerebral cortex , not so much in the subcortical areas more involved in emotion, and the threat detection, “which are areas where we saw changes in the mothers,” Saxbe said.
In the men, they found that the most significant changes were in the cortex , in the parts that process visual information and are part of the brain’s default mode network, which can be activated during daydreaming, memory recall or thinking about the future. These regions may also be involved in empathy .
“These regions are thought to be involved in mentalizing other people’s thoughts and feelings. The fact that we found changes in that part of the brain for both fathers and mothers suggests that some social brain remodeling is taking place.” explained the author of the study.