Nav: Home

How dads bond with toddlers: Brain scans link oxytocin to paternal nurturing

February 17, 2017

Fathers given boosts of the hormone oxytocin show increased activity in brain regions associated with reward and empathy when viewing photos of their toddlers, an Emory University study finds.

"Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children," says lead author James Rilling, an Emory anthropologist and director of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience. "They also suggest that oxytocin, known to play a role in social bonding, might someday be used to normalize deficits in paternal motivation, such as in men suffering from post-partum depression."

The journal Hormones and Behavior published the results of the study, the first to look at the influence of both oxytocin and vasopressin - another hormone linked to social bonding - on brain function in human fathers.

A growing body of literature shows that paternal involvement plays a role in reducing child mortality and morbidity, and improving social, psychological and educational outcomes. But not every father takes a "hands-on" approach to caring for his children.

"I'm interested in understanding why some fathers are more involved in caregiving than others," Rilling says. "In order to fully understand variation in caregiving behavior, we need a clear picture of the neurobiology and neural mechanisms that support the behavior."

Researchers have long known that when women go through pregnancy they experience dramatic hormonal changes that prepare them for child rearing. Oxytocin, in particular, was traditionally considered a maternal hormone since it is released into the bloodstream during labor and nursing and facilitates the processes of birth, bonding with the baby and milk production.

More recently, however, it became clear that men can also undergo hormonal changes when they become fathers, including increases in oxytocin. Evidence shows that, in fathers, oxytocin facilitates physical stimulation of infants during play as well as the ability to synchronize their emotions with their children.

In order to investigate the neural mechanisms involved in oxytocin and paternal behavior, the Rilling lab used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to compare neural activity in men with and without doses of oxytocin, administered through a nasal spray. The participants in the experiment were all healthy fathers of toddlers, between the ages of one and two. While undergoing fMRI brain scans, each participant was shown a photo of his child, a photo of a child he did not know and a photo of an adult he did not know.

When viewing an image of their offspring, participants dosed with oxytocin showed significantly increased neural activity in brain systems associated with reward and empathy, compared to placebo. This heightened activity (in the caudate nucleus, dorsal anterior cingulate and visual cortex) suggests that doses of oxytocin may augment feelings of reward and empathy in fathers, as well as their motivation to pay attention to their children.

Surprisingly, the study results did not show a significant effect of vasopressin on the neural activity of fathers, contrary to the findings of some previous studies on animals.

Research in prairie voles, which bond for life, for instance, has shown that vasopressin promotes both pair-bonding and paternal caregiving.

"It could be that evolution has arrived at different strategies for motiving paternal caregiving in different species," Rilling says.
-end-
Co-authors of the study include Ting Li (Emory Anthropology), Xu Chen (Emory Anthropology and the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences), Jennifer Mascaro (Emory School of Medicine Department of Family and Preventive Medicine) and Ebrahim Haroon (Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences).

Emory Health Sciences

Related Behavior Articles:

Religious devotion as predictor of behavior
'Religious Devotion and Extrinsic Religiosity Affect In-group Altruism and Out-group Hostility Oppositely in Rural Jamaica,' suggests that a sincere belief in God -- religious devotion -- is unrelated to feelings of prejudice.
Brain stimulation influences honest behavior
Researchers at the University of Zurich have identified the brain mechanism that governs decisions between honesty and self-interest.
Brain pattern flexibility and behavior
The scientists analyzed an extensive data set of brain region connectivity from the NIH-funded Human Connectome Project (HCP) which is mapping neural connections in the brain and makes its data publicly available.
Butterflies: Agonistic display or courtship behavior?
A study shows that contests of butterflies occur only as erroneous courtships between sexually active males that are unable to distinguish the sex of the other butterflies.
Sedentary behavior associated with diabetic retinopathy
In a study published online by JAMA Ophthalmology, Paul D.
Curiosity has the power to change behavior for the better
Curiosity could be an effective tool to entice people into making smarter and sometimes healthier decisions, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
Campgrounds alter jay behavior
Anyone who's gone camping has seen birds foraging for picnic crumbs, and according to new research in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, the availability of food in campgrounds significantly alters jays' behavior and may even change how they interact with other bird species.
A new tool for forecasting the behavior of the microbiome
A team of investigators from Brigham and Women's Hospital and the University of Massachusetts have developed a suite of computer algorithms that can accurately predict the behavior of the microbiome -- the vast collection of microbes living on and inside the human body.
Is risk-taking behavior contagious?
Why do we sometimes decide to take risks and other times choose to play it safe?
Neural connectivity dictates altruistic behavior
A new study suggests that the specific alignment of neural networks in the brain dictates whether a person's altruism was motivated by selfish or altruistic behavior.

Related Behavior Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".