First-time fathers suffer brain shrinkage, but cognitive abilities are not impacted: Study

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Parenthood is a blessing and a happy experience for a couple. But giving birth to a child is a months-long process that takes a lot of effort on part of the mother and father.

A dozen or so previous studies have shown that motherhood can change the structure of a person’s brain, and yet fatherhood is comparatively overlooked. But new research shows that childbirth has a physical effect on fathers as well.

Birth of first child leads to shrinkage in father’s brain

The study is only small, but it suggests that the neural substrates of parenthood are not exclusive to mothers. Men, as it turns out, can also be impacted by their new role as a parent, albeit in a less pronounced and uniform way. A new study analyzed MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) data from 40 heterosexual first-time fathers. Half of these men were based in Spain while the other half hailed from the US.

The expectant fathers in Spain participated in brain scans before their partners’ pregnancies, and then again a few months after birth. The expectant fathers in the US, on the other hand, participated during the mid-to-late stages of their partner’s pregnancy, and then again seven to eight months postpartum. The new research also included a control group of seventeen men without children based in Spain. Gathering together all their data, the two laboratories compared the volume, thickness, and structural properties of the male brain in all three groups.

Brain shrinkage may sound scary at first, but the study has found that it is beneficial

On average, the researchers found new fathers lost a percentage or two of cortical volume following the birth of their first child. This shrinkage was mainly confined to an area of the brain known as the ‘default mode network’, which is associated with parental acceptance and warmth. At first, a loss in cortical volume might sound like a bad thing, but it can actually indicate a refinement of the brain that makes connecting with a child more powerful and efficient.