Parents’ brains sync up when caring for children together

New research suggests parenthood helps couples tune into each other's minds and emotional states.

  • Far from being a mental drain, parenthood seems to rewire gray matter for improved empathy and emotional regulation.
  • A recent study published in Nature Scientific Reports found that couples who co-parent together display similar brain activity, suggesting they become greatly attuned to each other.
  • These findings suggest time spent parenting together improves care, coordination, and empathy.


  • When they say parenting changes you, what follows is typically a refrain of ways the wee one will break you. Consider "mommy brain," the folk psychology that having a baby decays a woman's mind to flighty, forgetful, scatterbrained mush.

    There is some truth to mommy brain—and the less discussed but no less lethargic daddy brain. It's not the mushy mind part. That can be chalked up to sleep deprivation and a hectic schedule. Give mommy or daddy the day off and a solid 8 hours of sleep, and watch their mental acuity snap back to top shape.

    The true part is that parenthood has been shown to alter our brains. It does this through neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain alters its physical structure through learning and environmental interaction, and neurogenesis, the forming of new neurons in certain brain regions.

    A recent study published in Nature Scientific Reports suggests that these cerebral redesigns may have the ability to not only make us better parents but better partners as well.

    A parental mind meld?

    Co-parenting is common in society and science experiments, but researchers led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, wanted to see how the physical presence of a co-parenting spouse affected brain responses.

    To do this, they brought in "24 mother-father dyads" (read: couples). First, they asked the couples to complete a questionnaire on how often the mother or father took the lead in parenting. They then asked them to listen to infant and adult vocalizations under two conditions, separately in different rooms and together in the same room.

    Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, the researchers measured the couples' brain activity in their prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with planning, emotional regulation, and executive functions.

    These scans revealed the couples to be synchronous, meaning their brain activity was similar and in the same areas of the brain. This synchronicity was only found in the together condition and was greater among parents who were younger, had only one child, and share parenting responsibilities more often.

    As a control, the researchers also performed the experiment with randomly matched couples. They showed no synchronous effect in either condition; only true couples mirrored each other's minds.

    These results suggest two affects of co-parenting. First, partners who parent together grow attune to each other's emotional state—so much so that the couples' brains may be pliantly changing to match. Though, the study notes, such a conclusion is beyond the scope of its methodology. Further research would be necessary.

    "Our study indicates that when spouses are physically together, there is greater synchrony in their attentional and cognitive control mechanisms when parenting," Gianluca Esposito, the paper's senior author and an associate professor at Nanyang, told Yahoo News.

    Second, time spent co-parenting helps couples shoulder the mental and emotional difficulties of looking after children.

    However, that finding also points to the obverse. That is, parents who spend little time co-parenting together—whether because of work, separation, or one parent taking on the responsibility wholly—will be less likely to coordinate empathy. As Esposito explains:

    Since the brain response of parents may be shaped by the presence of the spouse, then it is likely that spouses who do not spend much time together while attending their children may find it harder to understand each other's viewpoint and have reduced ability to coordinate co-parenting responsibilities. This may undermine the quality of parental care in the long run.

    So, it may not take a village, but it's certainly nice to have someone around who understands your feelings like its second nature.

    Brain gains aren't just for kids

    Research has shown that fathers who take on care responsibilities also activate the mental "parent network."

    (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    While this study looked at couples' brains, many others have focused on how individual parent brains are shaped in response to their little bundles of responsibility.

    A study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that "mommy brain" doesn't wither women's cerebrums but actually triggers a brainy boom. MRI images of mothers' brains found increased gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain.

    "We found growth in brain areas ... which may be responsible for interacting with your child, finding your baby to be special, planning and monitoring your parenting behavior, and engaging in warm parenting behavior," Pilyoung Kim, the study's lead author, told WebMD.

    And fathers share in the changes, too. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that father's minds turned on the "parenting network," mirroring the same neural activation as mothers, an effect that was particularly strong in two-father couples.

    So, it's certainly true that parenting changes you. But when it comes to our brains, those changes appear to be for the better.


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    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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