NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 28, 2009

Conventional wisdom holds that two parents are better than one.  Scientists are now finding that growing up without a father actually changes the way your brain develops.

German biologist Anna Katharina Braun and others are conducting research on animals that are typically raised by two parents, in the hopes of better understanding the impact on humans of being raised by a single parent.  Dr. Braun's work focuses on degus, small rodents related to guinea pigs and chinchillas, because mother and father degus naturally raise their babies together.

  • When deprived of their father, the degu pups exhibit both short- and long-term changes in nerve-cell growth in different regions of the brain.
  • Their preliminary analysis indicates that fatherless degu pups exhibit more aggressive and impulsive behavior than pups raised by two parents.

The researchers also looked at the neurons -- cells that send and receive messages between the brain and the body -- of some pups at day 21, around the time they were weaned from their mothers, and others at day 90, which is considered adulthood for the species.  Neurons have branches, known as dendrites, that conduct electrical signals received from other nerve cells to the body, or trunk, of the neuron.   The leaves of the dendrites are protrusions called dendritic spines that receive messages and serve as the contact between neurons.

  • Dr. Braun's group found that at 21 days, the fatherless animals had less dense dendritic spines compared to animals raised by both parents, though they "caught up" by day 90.
  • However, the length of some types of dendrites was significantly shorter in some parts of the brain, even in adulthood, in fatherless animals.

"It just shows that parents are leaving footprints on the brain of their kids," says Dr. Braun.

Source: Shirley S. Wang, "This Is Your Brain Without Dad," Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2009.

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