Children raised without a father are at greater risk of deviant behavior later—and girls in particular may be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol—according to a new study with mice.
While many studies have outlined the value of a mother, few have clearly defined the importance of a father. Researchers say this is the first study to link father absenteeism with social attributes and to correlate these with physical changes in the brain.
“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” says senior author Gabriella Gobbi, associate professor of medicine at McGill University and a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center.
“We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”
“Because we can control their environment, we can equalize factors that differ between them,” says first author Francis Bambico, a former student of Gobbi’s who is now a postdoc at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
“Mice studies in the laboratory may therefore be clearer to interpret than human ones, where it is impossible to control all the influences during development.”
Missing dads, aggressive kids
For the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers compared the social behavior and brain anatomy of mice that had been raised with both parents to those that had been raised only by their mothers.
Mice raised without a father had abnormal social interactions and were more aggressive than counterparts raised with both parents. These effects were stronger for female offspring than for their brothers. Females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug, amphetamine.
“The behavioral deficits we observed are consistent with human studies of children raised without a father,” Gobbi says. “These children have been shown to have an increased risk for deviant behavior and, in particular, girls have been shown to be at risk for substance abuse. This suggests that these mice are a good model for understanding how these effects arise in humans.”
Pups deprived of fathers also showed defects in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps control social and cognitive activity, which is linked to the behavioral deficits.
“This is the first time research findings have shown that paternal deprivation during development affects the neurobiology of the offspring,” Gobbi says.
The results should incite researchers to look more deeply into the role of fathers during critical stages of growth and suggest that both parents are important in children’s mental health development.
Source: McGill University