Brains of new dads rewired to play mummy

The Sunday Times 21 December 2014

Abu Amin, with wife Henriette and baby Noa, says fatherhood can have a double-edged effect (Akira Suemori)

MODERN man can mother a child as well as any woman, new research suggests.

The first project to study brain activity in new fathers shows that men develop extra mental connections just as women do. Women also have as little activity as men in the “mothering” part of the brain until both sexes respond to the newborn child.

Until now it has been assumed the nurturing instinct of mothers is the result of changes caused by hormones in pregnancy and childbirth.

Scientists, however, have found men accumulate new thinking powers or grey matter in areas associated with caring for a baby. There is less difference with women than might have been expected.

The results from the studies carried out on professional working men in their thirties who were educated to degree level or above were discussed at a conference at University College London (UCL) last week.

They showed that while the men were involved in childcare only at night or at weekends, their brains changed like those of new mothers.

Unlike in women, though, some parts of the male brain related to abstract thought appeared to become less active, or even switch off, when they had a child to consider.

The scientists, from Yale University in Connecticut, had observed similar effects in the handful of non-human animals that practise co- parenting, notably voles.

They were surprised by the change inside the heads of human fathers, which were observed using the latest generation of brain-imaging tools.

The studies show an unexpected “plasticity” or ability to adapt in the adult male brain, and demonstrate that a new father can be just as in tune with a baby’s emotional and physical needs as a mother.

However, the findings, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, raise questions about whether the change in the “mental economy” required for parenting makes involved fathers less effective at work than childless colleagues.

The expansion of active grey matter observed in the men’s lateral prefrontal cortex and the striatum is associated with increased need for time-planning or multitasking, to fit in the demands of work and childcare. The growth of the subgenual cingulate is associated with mood regulation and the demand for patience.

At the same time, the orbitofrontal cortex associated with decision making, and the posterior cingulate cortex associated with memory retrieval seemed almost to switch off.

Ruth Feldman, professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University’s brain research centre in Tel Aviv and one of the collaborators in the Yale project, said this area of brain imaging began to produce results only in the past year and that more work was needed.

Nevertheless the flowering of new brain connections led the investigators to believe parenting improves brain power for men and women.

“It was already known that women’s brains develop the greatest number of new connections after childbirth, and we have now shown that fathers’ brains are sensitive to the experience of child-caring in those that are actively involved but we don’t yet know what happens longer term,” said Feldman.

Other experts say it is too early to draw conclusions. Although the results were consistent among the men investigated, there were only 16 of them and they were drawn from a narrow social class.

“I would be surprised if the effect was so great because it would compromise mechanisms required for survival,” said Eamon McCrory, professor of developmental neuroscience and psychopathology at UCL, who organised the conference.

Jacqui Gabb, a leader of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Enduring Love? project that studied the long-term relationships of more than 5,000 adults, said there was growing evidence that innate gender differences between male and female behaviour were not as great as previously thought.

“Fathers are certainly more actively involved in fathering than they were in the past,” she said.

Abu Amin, 35, from Stratford, east London, and father of Elias, 3, and Noa, eight months, is a director at the professional services network PwC. He recognises the double-edged effect of fatherhood.

When Elias was born, he said, “I foolishly tried to work from home to try to extend my paternity leave. Work didn’t get done and things fell through the cracks.”