Darby Saxbe, University of Southern California – Dad Brain? How Fatherhood Changes the Brain

We’ve heard of dad bod, but how about dad brain?

Darby Saxbe, professor in the psychology department at the University of Southern California, looks at how fatherhood can change the brain.

Darby Saxbe is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Southern California, where she co-directs the USC Center for the Changing Family and studies families, stress, health, and neuroplasticity in her NEST (Neuroendocrinology of Social Ties) Lab.

Dad Brain? How Fatherhood Changes the Brain

In recent decades, the hours per week that fathers spend in childcare has tripled in the United States – and it is known that children with involved fathers do better on a range of outcomes. But there is surprisingly little research on how fatherhood affects men. Does fatherhood reshape men’s brain and bodies in ways that might motivate their parenting?

In a recent study our research group embarked on a unique international collaboration. We put two groups of first-time fathers – one group in Spain, one in California– into an MRI scanner twice: first during their partners’ pregnancy, and again after their baby was six months old. The study also included a control group of childless men in Spain. We found several significant differences in the brains of the fathers that did not emerge within the childless men. In both the Spanish and Californian samples, fathers showed decreased grey matter volume in cortical brain structures responsible for visual processing, attention, and empathy towards the baby. 

These new findings echo research on new mothers. In a study conducted by our collaborators in Spain, first-time mothers scanned before pregnancy, and again shortly after birth, also displayed brain volume decreases that were so clear, an algorithm could tell the brains of mothers and non-mothers apart. Changes appeared in many of the same structures we observed in the new fathers. However, brain changes in our fathers were less pronounced than the mothers in this earlier study – about half the magnitude – and also appeared more variable. Fathers’ engagement in childcare may affect the plasticity of the fathering brain. More research is needed to tease out these questions and to figure out how best to intervene with fathers who may struggle to adjust to parenting.

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