Parents’ brains sync up when caring for children together

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

Parents’ brains sync up when caring for children together
  • 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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    Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

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    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

    "I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

    It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

    This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

    If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

    Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

    A virus and a firestorm

    The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

    The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

    The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

    Just three special traits

    Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

    For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

    A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

    Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

    "In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

    H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

    H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

    Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

    Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

    If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

    "Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

    One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

    The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

    And, potentially, people.

    "This work should never have been done"

    The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

    "When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

    In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

    Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

    But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

    The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

    As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

    Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

    Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

    "You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

    The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

    There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    "Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

    Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

    They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

    Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

    And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

    "Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

    The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

    There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

    "The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

    No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

    "Nature will continue to do this"

    They were dead on the beaches.

    In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

    The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

    "We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

    Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

    "If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

    "With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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