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

February 17, 2017, Emory University
Credit: George Hodan/public domain

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 , 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 , 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 - 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 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 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 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.

Explore further: Oxytocin produces more engaged fathers and more responsive infants

Related Stories

Oxytocin produces more engaged fathers and more responsive infants

December 10, 2012
A large body of research has focused on the ability of oxytocin to facilitate social bonding in both marital and parenting relationships in human females. A new laboratory study, led by Dr. Ruth Feldman from Bar-Ilan University ...

Do mothers really have stronger bonds with their children than fathers do?

April 20, 2016
From the marketplace to the workplace, it is mothers who are still perceived as having that "special bond" with their children. This is compounded by advertising and the widely held expectation that it will be mothers who ...

Oxytocin improves synchronization in leader-follower interaction

December 9, 2016
When standing in a crowd at a concert, clapping hands along with the music on stage, it may be that people with higher levels of oxytocin are better synchronised with the beat of the music than those with lower levels of ...

Oxytocin enhances spirituality, new study says

September 21, 2016
Oxytocin has been dubbed the "love hormone" for its role promoting social bonding, altruism and more. Now new research from Duke University suggests the hormone may also support spirituality.

Testes size correlates with men's involvement in toddler care

September 9, 2013
Men with smaller testes than others are more likely to be involved in hands-on care of their toddlers, a new study conducted by anthropologists at Emory University finds. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ...

Recommended for you

Engaging in physical activity decreases people's chance of developing depression

April 24, 2018
An international team including researchers from King's College London have found physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression, regardless of age and geographical region.

Imagining a positive outcome biases subsequent memories

April 24, 2018
Imagining that a future event will go well may lead you to remember it more positively after it's over, according to findings from research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Early childhood interventions show mixed results on child development

April 24, 2018
Early childhood interventions may have some efficacy in boosting measures of child health and development in low income countries, but more work is needed to sort out how to implement these interventions, according to a new ...

People expect their memory to fade as early as their 50s

April 24, 2018
People across the UK expect their memory to worsen in their 50s, according to new research from Heriot-Watt University.

Depressed, inactive and out of work—study reveals lives of lonely young adults

April 24, 2018
New research from King's College London shows that lonely young adults are more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to be out of work than their peers. The study, published today in Psychological Medicine, ...

Sense of control and meaning helps protect women from anxiety

April 24, 2018
People who feel in control of their lives and who find purpose and meaning in life are less likely to have anxiety disorders even when going through the toughest times, according to a study led by the University of Cambridge.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.