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Pregnancy is an important transition in a woman’s life, as her body, including her brain, adapts through significant physiological changes. The neuronal changes would induce a progressive psychic construction linked to the attachment of the mother to the child, in a sort of psychological preparation. But what about the father? One of the few studies addressing the issue revealed, for the first time, that neuronal adaptation phenomena also occur in the father during the transition to paternity. In particular, there would be a reduction of the cortical volume and a thinning of its surface. These changes would be related to the responses to the visual signals of their children, and would probably be at the origin of a progressive construction of a psychic father-child bond.
During pregnancy, some women sometimes become less alert, less focused, and develop memory problems. Instead they can become real “sponges”, as if their emotional abilities had suddenly increased. These phenomena would be due to an important transition in the whole organism.
Studies have focused on these events and revealed that in pregnant women, the brain would undergo changes such as a loss of volume and gray matter, even two years after giving birth. This great brain plasticity would make it possible in particular to prepare the mother physiologically and psychologically for the care of the child. Some hypotheses suggest that the development of the maternal instinct derives from this.
These brain changes would be of hormonal origin and would occur at the level of the regions involved in social interactions, including perception, the interpretation of desires, emotions, etc. Contrary to some popular beliefs and myths (such as single neuron syndrome), this is by no means a disabling condition, as a loss of gray matter could represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialization at a critical time in life. Additionally, when mothers looked at photos of their babies, strong neural activity was recorded in specific areas of the brain, suggesting a positive effect.
As for paternity, however, very few studies have focused on studying brain changes in men who become fathers. However, some research has found that reactive paternal behavior has a positive impact on the child’s development. According to a new international study, the passage of a man to paternity would also induce important preparatory physiological phenomena.
Led by Gregorio Marañón’s Institute of Health Investigation (in Spain), the new study in question is one of the few dedicated to the neuroanatomical adaptations of men in transition to paternity. The results, published in the journal Oxford Academician (a summary of two studies) suggest for the first time that brain changes occur in fathers similar to those in mothers. The latter would also undergo a biological upheaval by becoming parents, to also adapt (psychologically) to the arrival of their children.
Loss of cortical and subcortical volume
Concretely, the new study observes how parental experience can influence brain plasticity, even when pregnancy is not experienced directly – this is the case with the father. The analyzes were carried out on a first group of 20 fathers before and after the birth of their first children. The second (control) group consisted of 17 childless men.
The primary focus of the observations was to determine whether paternity caused anatomical changes in the brain in terms of overall volume, cortical thickness, and subcortical volume. The results showed that cortical and subcortical volumes decreased significantly in the father. The cortical “surface” would also decrease in the new parents.
The researchers then wanted to see if the course of these changes correlated with the age of the children and whether the brain responses in the father were different if the children weren’t his. They then found that greater reductions in volume and thickness in the cerebral cortex were linked to stronger responses (brain activity) when the father looked at a photo of his son, even after birth. The responses, however, were completely different with the pictures of other children.