James Swain, currently a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and a former researcher at the Yale School of Medicine, studies children’s early environments and most recently the effect of paternal behavior on infants. In his latest research, he is looking at the other side of that equation to understand how infants affect their fathers — how does the paternal brain change when a child comes into the picture? The News spoke with Swain to talk about the implications of his research for fathers and their children.
Could you present the purpose of your research, its context and how you decided to study the paternal brain?
Rather than studying the children themselves, we started looking at the environment of development. And that is a big topic in the last 20 years in neuroscience. For children, particularly very, very young children, the environment is constituted by the parents, the mother perhaps. So the way the mother behaves, what she thinks about have been quantified by such terms as maternal sensitivity and have a huge impact on child development. The generator of the mother’s thoughts and behaviors and potential caring is her brain. So that is why we started studying mothers’ brains in the earliest few months post-partum, using brain imaging and stimuli such as pictures of other babies and pictures of their own baby in [an experimental] design to compare brain activity. We kind of pioneered that back in 2002 to 2004, and we’ve been joined by some other wonderful researchers, using slightly different paradigms. Now a few of us have started to look at fathers’ brains as well, at their thoughts and behaviors and what made them caring fathers or not. I think at this stage with the fathers we are just at the beginning of exploring healthy fathers’ brain behavior.
In the last 10 to 15 years we are increasingly aware that brains are constantly remodeling themselves, changing according to environmental cues, changing according to how people live their life. We discovered that fathers in the first three months have changes in the density of certain brain areas and certain cortical brain areas. We are trying to discuss in our paper how these changes can relate to the experience of unhealthy fathers. [It] looks like there are some interesting adaptations of father’s post-partum brains.
The article discusses potential models for identifying and treating father-child relation problems. Could you please explain what the suggestions were?
We are just in the first steps now. Once we become confident and replicate the importance of certain brain areas of normal healthy fathers we hope we will be able to also identify deviations from that in fathers who are depressed or are prone to be depressed. Then we will be able to do a brain scan of a father and say, “your emotional regulations are working fine, but your invigoration or something else looks a little shaky.” In the future, by doing the scan, we could identify a higher risk of depression, for example, and suggest some kind of cycle therapy or some brain training program. New parents that are struggling can go to a psychologist or psychiatrist and get some treatment.
During the course of your research, did anything you observed strike you as being different than expected?
When we started this work at Yale, I wasn’t sure if we would detect anything when we compared the brains of parents when hearing their own baby cry versus [hearing] other babies’ cries. Or maybe mothers will be able to detect it. For fathers I personally thought that all babies’ cries would be annoying. And now, 13 years later, I am pleased to be surprised that fathers’ brains actually do respond and that’s what’s cool about it. It seems that there are some things that are in common with women, but there are some particular differences. Fathers have less early post-partum depression. We’re just starting to look at the technology, and it looks like [for fathers and mothers] there are some areas in common that are important for emotional integration, and seem to be significantly overlapping.
Three to four months post-partum, there are a number of changes that occur — some radical changes. A father’s brain starts to react like a mother’s brain earlier, but there are some differences that we haven’t yet discussed in [our most recent paper].
What was the best part of this research for you?
Being among the first to look at what the brains of fathers are doing and try to make an interpretation. One of the reasons I came to Yale was that there is a very well established School of Medicine Psychiatry Department that had been studying depressed moms for years.
And it is important because, for example, post-partum depression is very well established in mothers and can have a devastating effect on children. So if we can figure out what the negatives are, we can help the parents do their job more effectively.