A new study may help to change same-sex adoption restrictions in the U.S. by proving what many have already known: Gay dads are just as capable of raising children as their heterosexual counterparts. A team of researchers used MRI scans to show that the brains of all parents, gay and straight, adapt in parenthood to better care for a child.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Bar-Ilan University in Israel sought to discover how the brains of men and women changed when they became parents. The researchers videotaped 89 new moms and straight dads and 48 gay dads as they interacted with their newborn babies, Time reported. The researchers then used an MRI to measure the parents’ brain activity as they watched the footage taken of them with their children and again as they watched footage that did not feature their children.
Results showed that the brains of new moms and new straight dads behaved slightly differently. The new moms’ brains had adapted to be more sensitive to their child’s emotional needs. In the 20 mothers in the study, researchers observed a heightened amount of activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotion-processing region. "These are regions that respond unconsciously to signs of an infants' needs, and that derive deep emotional reward from seeing the baby," Ruth Felman, lead author on the study, explained to Reuters.
Straight Dads’ Brains
The brains of new straight dads alter slightly to help them interpret a child’s needs. These brains showed an increase of activity in their cognitive circuits. This helped the fathers better understand what a certain cry or body movement indicated such as the “I’m hungry” cry or the “I need to be changed” squirm, Time reported.
Gay Dads’ Brains
What was found in gay dads' brains was slightly unexpected. These brains mirrored those of both heterosexual moms and dads. The gay dad’s brain also had a feature that wasn’t observed in the straight fathers. Researchers found that gay dads had a connection between emotional and cognitive functions in their brains, and this connection grew stronger the longer the men spent with a child. "Fathers' brains are very plastic," Feldman said. "When there are two fathers, their brains must recruit both networks, the emotional and cognitive, for optimal parenting," Feldman told Time.
No Biological Difference
For future studies, the researchers would like to perform neuroimaging on men and women both before and after they become parents to prove that these brain changes are directly influenced by parenting.
This study could potentially help same-sex couples who would like to adopt a child. Although there is no federal law on homosexual adoption, many states have certain requirements or restrictions that make this difficult. The levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, were also tested in all parents involved in the study. There was no significant difference found in any of the three groups. According to Feldman, this suggests that, biologically, all groups are equally prepared to raise a child, Time reported.