What happens in a man’s brain when he becomes a father?

A team of American and Spanish scientists studied the changes that occur in the brains of men who become fathers for the first time, and found that there are both positive and negative changes in brain structure.

The scientific journal Cerebral Cortex notes that most previous research in this area has focused on mothers, so neuroscientists wanted to fill a gap in understanding of how fathers’ brains adapt to parenthood.

The study involved 38 men who were about to become fathers for the first time, all of whom underwent high-resolution MRI scans during their wives’ pregnancy and six to 12 months after the birth.

They also had to fill in questionnaires about themselves during pregnancy and three, six and 12 months after giving birth, assessing factors such as their relationship with their baby, parental stress, time spent with their baby, sleep quality and mental health.

The researchers found that new fathers had significant decreases in gray matter volume throughout the cerebral cortex, particularly in the frontal, temporal, parietal, and cingulate cortices. These changes were most pronounced in fathers who reported greater bonding with their baby before the birth and in those who planned to take an extended leave of absence after the birth. The greatest changes in gray matter volume were seen in the left frontal, right parietal, and right temporal lobes. The same was observed in fathers who had spent an extended period of time with their baby as the primary caregiver.

The researchers found that greater parental stress was associated with less reduction in the volume of the cerebral cortex. These findings suggest that the brain changes in young fathers are linked to parental motivation and reflect a better adjustment to parenthood.

Moreover, the study also revealed a downside to these changes: greater reductions in cortical volume were found to be associated with poorer sleep quality at 3, 6, and 12 months of age, as well as higher levels of depression, anxiety, and psychological stress.

Men preparing to become fathers should be aware that this new trait could reveal mental health vulnerabilities, the researchers say.

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