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Pregnancy is a major transition in a woman’s life, as her body, including the brain, adapts through significant physiological changes. The neuronal changes would induce a progressive psychic construction linked to the attachment of the mother to her child, in a kind of psychological preparation. But what about the father? One of the few studies addressing the question revealed, for the first time, that neuronal adaptation phenomena also occur in the father during the transition to fatherhood. In particular, there would be a reduction in the cortical volume and a thinning of its surface. These changes would be linked to responses to the visual signals of their children, and would probably be at the origin of a progressive construction of a father-child psychic bond.
During pregnancy, some women sometimes become less attentive, less concentrated, and develop memory problems. On the other hand, they can become real “sponges”, as if their emotional capacities had suddenly increased. These phenomena would be due to a major 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 childbirth. This great cerebral plasticity would in particular make it possible to prepare the mother physiologically and psychologically for the care of the child. Some hypotheses suggest that the development of the maternal instinct follows from this.
These cerebral changes would be of hormonal origin and would occur at the level of the regions involved in social interactions including perception, 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, strong neural activity was recorded at specific areas of the brain when mothers looked at photos of their babies, suggesting a positive effect.
As for fatherhood, however, very few studies have focused on studying brain changes — in men who become fathers. Yet, some research has found that responsive paternal behavior has a positive impact on infant development. According to a new international study, a man’s transition to fatherhood would also induce important preparatory physiological phenomena.
Led by the Institute of Health Investigation of Gregorio Marañón (in Spain), the new study in question is one of the few dedicated to the neuroanatomical adaptations of men in transition to fatherhood. The results, published in the journal Oxford Academic (a synthesis of two studies) suggest for the first time that brain changes similar to those of mothers occur in fathers. The latter would also undergo a biological upheaval by becoming parents, in order to adapt (psychologically) too 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 – the case of 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 main objective 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 in the father, the cortical and subcortical volumes decreased significantly. The cortical “surface” would also have decreased in the new parents.
The researchers next wanted to see if the course of these changes was related to the age of the children, and if the brain responses in the father differed if the babies were not theirs. They then discovered 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 child, even after birth. The responses, however, were completely different with pictures of other children.