House of Mind

"Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind" - Jeffrey Eugenides

  • 21st January
  • 21

From Father to Offspring: The Contribution of Paternal Involvement and the Role of Paternal Transmission of Psychopathology

Coming from a lab focused on mother-pup interactions and attachment during infancy, I never really considered the contribution of paternal care to offspring survival and development. Needless to say, I myself am guilty of minimizing the role and contribution of paternal behavior on offspring development. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I found that there is much relevant work being done in this underrepresented area of neuroscience.

So why is the study of paternal care and related behaviors important? Let’s start off by pointing out that, much like maternal care, paternal behaviors strongly influence the emotional and social development of their offspring as well as increasing survival rate. In addition, think about this: in human culture, who is more likely to leave a household? Fathers leave the family nucleus more frequently than mothers and they are also more likely to become abusive. It should then be no surprise that the children of these fathers grow up under stressful conditions and have a higher susceptibility for developing abnormal psychosocial outcomes. In order to gain insight into the neural substrates and circuits underlying paternal behaviors, scientists are employing a vast number of animal models (i.e. birds, fish, marmosets, hamsters, voles, mice) and studying different elements of paternal care behaviors. Although the use of model organisms to study complex interactions (that are in turn influenced by society and culture), such as those pertaining to human paternal care that encompass more abstract behaviors like planning, provisioning through financial means and perceptual warmth, they provide important clues into the different mechanisms and operating factors related to the spectrum of paternal behaviors.

Examples of Paternal Behaviors in Model Animals:

  • Grooming
  • Thermoregulatory behaviors (crouching, huddling to provide warmth)
  • Pup retrieval
  • Nest building
  • Food gathering
  • Baby-sitting/guarding (aka protection)

Factors modulating paternal involvement/care:

  1. Environment: Some species that are not usually paternal will become so when faced with tough environmental conditions (i.e. facultative care). The role of photoperiod is also known to influence bheavior of the non-parental male in some species. For example, the meadow vole will begin biparental care during the colder months of the year when there is also less daylight hours.
  2. Prior Experience: Previous pup experiences may affect future paternal behavior. For example, repeated pup exposure is able to induce paternal behavior in virgin male rats (FYI: pup experience is able to induce maternal behavior in virgin female rats as well.
  3. Maternal variables: Females are also affected by some of the same factors influencing paternal care, and they can in turn modulate/regulate paternal behavior. For example, brief cohabitation with a female is able to decrease the latency of paternal behavior initiation in prairie voles. Also, mother monkeys sometimes direct threat vocalization towards the fathers when these initiate contact with infants, thus limiting their parental involvement.

The role of paternal involvement in offspring development has also gained recent popularity due to studies that have raised the possibility that epigenetic mechanisms in fathers may contribute to the transgenerational transmission of stress-induced psychopathologies. For example, major depressive disorder (MDD) is a highly heritable psychiatric disorder that is influenced by exposure to many forms of chronic stress. Moreover, stress has been suggested to contribute to MDD via epigenetic alterations that may be passed on to subsequent generations, thus increasing vulnerability to MDD. 

A recent reserach study led by Eric Nestler at Mount Sinai School of Medicine employed a chronic social defeat stress paradigm in adult male mice to investigate the transgenerational transmission of stress-vulnerability. The group, who had previously demonstrated that chronic social defeat stress induces depression and anxiety-like behaviors, studied whether exposure to chronic social defeat stress causes stress-related abnormalities in the F1 (first generation) offspring of the stressed fathers. Also, they examined known biomarkers of depression (i.e. corticosterone vascular endothelial growth factor) in male and female offspring of stressed fathers. The group found that male mice bred from defeated fathers showed a robust behavioral phenotype characterized by pronounced social and neurobehavioral deficits in multiple anxiety and depression related behavioral tasks (elevated plus maze, novelty exposure, forced swim test). However, this effect was limited in females and not as robust. The male offspring of defeated fathers also showed higher levels of corticosterone and lower levels of VEGF.

In order to directly determine a role for epigenetics,  the group also did something very clever and used in vitro fertilization (IVF)  in addition to regular breeding. However, they failed to find marked neurobehavioral abnormalities in these IVF offspring, suggesting that the transgenerationally transmitted behavioral phenotypes likely occur through behavioral mechanisms, although a small role for epigenetics is apparent.


Kentner, Abizaid, Bielajew. 2010.  Modeling Dad: Animal Models of Paternal Behavior. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 34 (3): 438-451.

Dietz et al. 2011. Paternal transmission of stress-induced pathologies. Biological Psychiatry. 70 (5): 408-414.

Dietz and Nestler. 2011. From father to offspring: paternal transmission of depressive-like behaviors. Neuropsychopharmacology. 37 (1): 111-2.

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