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Being a Parent Changes Your Brain, Whether You’re Gay or Straight

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Tuesday May 27, 2014

A new study conducted in Israel shows that gay men raising children they adopted through surrogacy may experience the same changes in their brain activity as both new mothers and fathers. This may influence the debate on gay men adopting children, as many U.S. agencies won't work with same-sex couples.

An Rueters reports, the current study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on the work by neuropsychologist Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University and others, who showed that the brains of new mothers become hyper-reactive to their child's cries and other emotional cues.

The researchers were unsure if this was a result of the hormonal and other changes that accompany pregnancy or a response to the experience of motherhood.

To find out, Feldman and her colleagues videotaped 89 new mothers and fathers interacting with their infants at home, measured the parents' brain activity while watching the videos in an MRI tube, and again while watching videos that their kids did not star in, to establish a baseline.

For the 20 mothers in the study, watching their babies triggered heightened activity in the brain's emotion-processing regions, particularly the amygdala, which was five times more active than at baseline.

"These are regions that respond unconsciously to signs of an infants' needs, and that derive deep emotional reward from seeing the baby," Feldman said.

The 21 heterosexual fathers also experienced increased activation of cognitive circuits while watching videos of their tots, particularly that part that interprets a baby's cries and non-verbal cues.

But studies of the 48 gay fathers raising children with their husbands showed that the men were firing on both the emotional circuits of the moms, and the interpretive circuits of the dads, with extra communications lines between the two.

The more time a man spent as primary caregiver, the greater the connectivity, as if playing both parental roles caused the brain to integrate the structures required for each.

"Fathers' brains are very plastic," Feldman said. "When there are two fathers, their brains must recruit both networks, the emotional and cognitive, for optimal parenting."

As Gay Star News reports, equal levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin was found in all the parents, showing that the experience of parenthood changes a person's brain activity whether they are a biological parent or not. This could have an impact on current adoption practices.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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