Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Neurological Consequences of Fatherlessness

Recent scientific studies could bring light on the harmful biological effects of fatherlessness (Shirley S. Wang, “This Is Your Brain Without Dad”, German biologist Anna Katharina Braun, director of the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, is doing research on biparental animals (animals that are typically raised by two parents), trying to understand the impact that could have on them being raised by a single parent. Dr. Braun's work focuses on degus, rodents related to guinea pigs (Note: Although it’s true that only 10 percent of all species are biparental. about 40% of mammal species, including humans, are, and over 90% of birds are).

Dr. Braun has discovered that when deprived of their father, the degu pups exhibit short- and long-term changes in nerve-cell growth in different regions of the brain. Fatherless degu pups also exhibit more aggressive and impulsive behavior than pups raised by two parents.

Dr. Braun's group found that the fatherless animals had a lesser neuronal development compared to animals raised by both parents. The neuronal differences were observed in the amygdala, which is related to emotional responses, and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the brain's decision-making center. A preliminary analysis of the degus' behavior showed that fatherless animals seemed to have a lack of impulse control.

The basic wiring of the degus’ brain is the same as in humans, and the nerve cells functions are identical, so we can assume that what happens in the degus’ brain when it's raised without father should be very similar to what happens in our children's brain when they are under the same circumstances.

Another researcher, Xia Zhang, senior scientist at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, has studied voles, rodents that also naturally co-parent, and found that voles deprived of their fathers exhibited more anxious behaviors and were less social than the ones raised by two parents.

The current tendency towards single-parent households has researchers looking at consequences for children (just 57% of children in the U.S. live with both parents, among the lowest percentages of the world's richest nations).

The research has found that children in single-parent households have an increased risk of delinquency, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and poorer scholastic performance. Robert Franklin, on his comments on Dr. Braun’s findings (“Fatherlessness in animals”,, writes:

“Do human children raised without fathers exhibit similar differences in neuronal growth? Certainly the sociology that deals with children of single-parent families clearly shows the behavioral damage fatherlessness can do. Would it be a surprise that physiological changes in the brain were at the root of those sets of behavior long recognized by sociologists?”

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