Dad with baby outdoors Dad with baby outdoors A study suggests dads, too, are hardwired for child-rearing. (Photo: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock)

Maternal instinct found in dads, too

Study suggests new fathers' brains change just like mothers' do.

A new study says it’s not just women who experience the neurological changes that come with having a child. Fathers – specifically fathers who are a child’s primary caregiver – can also be hardwired for child-rearing.

The study was spearheaded by Ruth Feldman, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Feldman and her colleagues videotaped 89 parents and then measured their brain and hormonal activity using MRIs. The subjects were grouped into three categories – heterosexual primary-caregiving mothers, heterosexual secondary-caregiving fathers and homosexual primary-caregiving fathers without maternal involvement. All were first-time parents of infants.

The MRIs showed differences between heterosexual mothers and fathers in areas such as the amygdala, a neuron-producing structure responsible for strong emotions, attention and vigilance, and parts of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for learning and experience. But in the brains of homosexual male couples, brain activity bore a strong resemblance to that of the heterosexual mothers in the study.

The findings have turned the widely accepted premise of so-called "mom brain" on its head, suggesting it’s not pregnancy and childbirth but the act of caring for a child that triggers these brain changes.

"Results revealed that parenting implemented a global 'parental caregiving' neural network, mainly consistent across parents," the report stated.

Previous studies have noted substantial similarities between mothers and fathers in child-rearing and have found the "maternal instinct" concept to be, at best, exaggerated. But Feldman's study is the first to show that gay fathers, who adopted their child through surrogacy and are the child's primary caregiver, showed activity in the emotional-processing regions of the brain similar to that of both new mothers and new (heterosexual) fathers.

"These are regions that respond unconsciously to signs of an infants' needs, and that derive deep emotional reward from seeing the baby," Feldman told Reuters.

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