Being A Parent Takes A Lot of Brain Power

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Apr 16, 2018

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People say that your parenting gene kicks in once you have kids. In the past, studies have shown your genes do partially determine how you parent. The idea that parenting is somehow implicit in our bodies has been percolating in neuroscience for a while. And now, for the first time, scientists are beginning to uncover the mechanisms in the brain that control parental behavior.

A recent study looked into the neurobiology of parental behavior — specifically which brain circuits coordinate parenting in mice. The team of researchers found that more than 20 different parts of the brain are integrated into this circuitry. When the mice became parents, they spent more time with and grooming their offspring, and were less interested with interacting with other adult mice.

A parenting-control hub oversees parental behavior, where different sets of cells trigger different responses involved in the nurturing of young animals, such as behavioral, hormonal, and motivational changes. “What we group in one term, parental care, actually means a lot of things change,” head researcher Catherine Dulac told Nature. “A lot of neural circuits are modified within the brain.”

Admittedly, the study was conducted on mice, so it’s unclear whether similar circuitry would be found in humans or other animals. However, the researchers noted that mice do share neurons that control other essential behaviors with other vertebrates, so it’s very possible.

Female mice demonstrate parenting behaviors even when they have no offspring of their own. Male mice, however, do not exhibit those behaviors unless they have recently mated. Usually, male mice are aggressive towards younger mice, but three weeks after they mate, which is when successful matings would produce offspring, they start exhibiting parental behavior that is exactly the same as that of female mice. Despite this difference in behavior, the researchers found no dramatic difference in parenting circuitry between males and females.

The team of scientists used light-based tools to manipulate neurons in the parenting circuits, activating cells in different areas of the control hub to understand how the mice changed their behavior. Through these manipulations, they were able to make the mice less interested in other adults, and more interested in grooming pups — whether or not the offspring were theirs.

Given that researchers were able to manipulate the mice’s neurons in such a way that they were more motivated to care for their offspring, there may be ways to help new parents with raising their children if similar brain circuitry exists in humans. For example, these findings could help scientists figure out a way to help mothers bond with their babies in cases of postpartum depression.

For now, if you feel like you’re up to your ears in conflicting parenting tips, at least you can take solace in the fact that there’s a chance your brain already knows what to do.

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Written By Urvija Banerji

Urvija Banerji is the Features Editor at The Swaddle, and has previously written for Rolling Stone India and Atlas Obscura. When she’s not writing, she can be found in her kitchen, painting, cooking, picking fights online, and consuming large amounts of coffee (often concurrently).

See all articles by Urvija

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