Never mind ‘dad brain’: you’ve probably got more grey matter than your mates.
We all know that being a dad shrinks wallets and patience, but one upside of fatherhood is that it doesn’t appear to shrink our brains.
Quite the opposite, in fact. An Australian study published in July discovered that parents in their 70s tended to have more grey matter than non parents of the same age. The thickness of our grey matter tends to decline as we get older, so the new study has led experts to conclude that parenthood may have a protective effect.
“In the present study, cortical thickness differences between parents and non-parents were evident in both sexes,” the researchers write. “Our results suggest that there is a modest, but reproducible, relationship between parenthood and cortical thickness in the aged brain.”
In other words, both mothers and fathers experience changes in their brains as a result of raising children, and those changes persist long after our children have grown up.
Why are parent brains different?
So why do older parents have more grey matter than non parents of the same age? The simple answer is that parenthood – as most of us well know – is tough, and our brains have to develop to cope with all its many and varied challenges.
“We argue that these late-life structural brain differences associated with parenthood are related to the environmental complexity of parenthood,” the Australian researchers write.
Or to put it another way, think of your life before and after becoming a parent. Looking back, most of us would now regard our lives before children as little more than the heady pursuit of career fulfillment and hedonistic pleasure. We may have thought about other people, but most of us only ever had to care for ourselves.
And then some fool leaves us in charge of a baby! Our brains suddenly have somebody else to care for, and somebody who is both indescribably precious and utterly helpless.
parenthood – as most of us well know – is tough, and our brains have to develop to cope with all its many and varied challenges
What happens to the dad brain?
Researchers have known for a long time that pregnancy hormones have a measurable impact on female brains, preparing them for looking after a child.
But the new study is one of several in the last few years to show that dad brains change too. We don’t experience pregnancy hormones, so it has been reasonably concluded that early interaction with newborn children prompts the development of areas in the male brain that are useful for child care.
Studies on primates appear to prove as much. One research paper puts it like this:
“Evidence to date suggests that the neural circuitry underlying paternal behavior is similar to that for maternal behavior in that the same brain regions seem to be activated when fathers and mothers have contact with infants. Moreover, many of the same hormonal changes that accompany the postpartum period also occur in fathers that display parenting behavior.”
Do dads really have bigger brains?
None of this fits in with the common belief in ‘mum brain’ and ‘dad brain’, coined to describe the forgetfulness and ditziness of parents in the first year or two after having a child.
But those conditions – and I think we can all relate to them – probably come down to exhaustion and having 18 things to think about at any one time. And as it turns out, having 18 things to think about at any one time actually makes parts of our brains bigger.
That’s true for dads as well as mums. Studies in mice have shown that significant neurogenesis occurs in the early days of fatherhood. Neurogenesis simply means the formation of new neurons, or brain cells. In other words, male mice get a boost of new brain cells to help them with their new responsibilities after the birth of their offspring.
This effect has also been observed in human dads, in a small study by researchers at the University of Denver. They analysed the brains of 16 new dads soon after childbirth and a few months down the line, and found more brain cells in areas associated with attachment, nurturing and empathy in the later test.
“This anatomical change in the brain may support the fathers’ gradual learning experience over a period of many months,” Dr. Pilyoung Kim, the lead researcher, said.
In other words, dads bulk out the bits of their brains that are useful for playing a full part in the raising of their children. The new Australian study suggests the effects may last our whole lives, giving us more grey matter even when we’re old and, erm, grey.