Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Distress Cue Processing in First-Time Fathers

Sarah A. Stoycos, M.A.

VA Boston Healthcare System
Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Distress Cue Processing in First-Time Fathers

Scientific Abstract

Background: Studying a man’s transition to parenthood may be one of the few normative adult experiences that may reshape the brain in key areas implicated in motivated caregiving, appetitive learning, reward saliency and emotion processing. The current study is the first study to neuroimage males before and after the birth of their first child to examine potential changes in neural networks associated with approach motivated behavior in response to distress.

Methods: Thirty-eight first-time fathers completed an implicit emotion recognition fMRI task and forced- choice emotion recognition behavioral task prenatally and postpartum (replication of Marsh, Stoycos et al., 2014). Functional MRI data and high-resolution structural scans were acquired on a 3T MR-scanner and analyzed within the general linear model framework using FSL software.

Results: Fathers’ explicit fear recognition ability was stable from the prenatal (M = .66, SD = .32) to postpartum (M = .76, SD = .32) period, t(21) = -1.34, p = .20. Prenatally, fathers viewing fearful faces exhibited BOLD activation in emotional saliency (amygdala, insula), avoidance (PAG), and regulatory regions (hippocampus, occipital lobe, inferior frontal gyrus, and middle frontal gyrus). Postpartum, fathers exhibited BOLD activation in emotional saliency (amygdala) and appetitive learning and reward regions (putamen, pallidum, caudate). Prenatally, explicit fear recognition was positively associated with PAG BOLD activation, r(38) = .363, p = .018. Postpartum, explicit fear recognition was inversely related with PAG BOLD activation, r(25) = -.399, p = .048.

Conclusions: The transition to fatherhood is associated with differential neural and behavioral correlates of distress cue processing that may subserve reorganization of approach-avoidance responding to distress cues. Further research examining males transitioning to parenthood may help inform our understanding of sensitive caregiving in fatherhood.

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research Areas


Sarah A. Stoycos, M.A., Darby Saxbe, Ph.D.