Dads matter:

New research shows the value of fathers in both the neurobiology and

behaviour of offspring

News Editor: Maria Kostyanaya 

From Freud (Freud, 1920) and continuing thorough the Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory (Bretherton, 1992) to today, the mother figure has attracted more attention than that of the father. How important is it for a child to be raised by both parents?

A new study from the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) clearly shows that the absence of a father during critical periods of growth leads to impaired social and behavioral abilities in adults. This research, conducted on mice and published on the 4th of December in the journal Cerebral Cortex, is the first to link a father’s absence with further social attributes and correlations with physical changes in the brain.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

Daughter with DaddyThe first author, Francis Bambico, a former student of Dr. Gobbi at McGill, current post-doc at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, states that they tried to equalize environmental factors accounting for difference between humans and other species. Moreover, he adds: “Mice studies in the laboratory may therefore be clearer to interpret than human ones, where it is impossible to control all the influences during development.”

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups of mice: the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions. This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug – amphetamine.

“The behavioral deficits we observed are consistent with human studies of children raised without a father,” admits Dr. Gobbi, who also works as a psychiatrist at the MUHC. “These children have been shown to have an increased risk for deviant behavior and in particular, girls have been shown to be at risk for substance abuse. This suggests that these mice are a good model for understanding how these effects arise in humans.”

Most importantly, the researchers identified defects in the prefrontal cortex within the group of mice deprived of fathers or the part of the brain that helps control social and cognitive activity, which is linked to the behavioral deficits.

“This is the first time research findings have shown that paternal deprivation during development affects the neurobiology of the offspring,” states Dr. Gobbi. These kind of results should inspire researchers to look more carefully into the role of fathers during critical stages of growth and suggest that both parents are of equal importance in children’s mental health development.

Journal reference

Francis R. Bambico, Baptiste Lacoste, Patrick R. Hattan, and Gabriella Gobbi. Father Absence in the Monogamous California Mouse Impairs Social Behavior and Modifies Dopamine and Glutamate Synapses in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. Cereb. Cortex, 2013 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bht310

Additional references

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of the attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Developmental Psychology, 28(5), 759-775.

Freud, S. (1920). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Boni and Liveright.


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