Many modern fathers now care for children on a part-time or full-time basis, and when it comes to gay male couples, one parent often assumes the primary caregiver role without the presence of a female.

But, can fathers’ brains emotionally and physically adjust to nurture children in the same way that mothers do?

According to an Israeli study based on a series of research experiments led by Eyal Abraham of Bar-Ilan University, the answer is yes — but that nurturing behavior is driven by different parts of the brain for each type of parent.

The study measured the level of oxytocin produced by mothers and fathers as they interacted with their babies. Oxytocin – the “bonding hormone” — is released in a mother’s brain at time of birth to facilitate bonding. Although present in both genders, only recently has oxytocin been recognized as driving nurturing, trust and affection behaviors in males, too.

For the study, all parent/child interactions were videotaped. Parents then watched videos of themselves with their babies, as well as videos of other study participants with their own babies. While watching, the parent’s brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect brain activation patterns linked to parental caregiving.

In both male and female brains, the very practice of being a child’s caregiver activated a certain “parental caregiver neural network,” driven by oxytocin levels. Whether a part-time or full-time caregiver, the father’s brains responded and activated in ways similar to the mothers.

The difference was where the neural activity occurred. The fMRI scans revealed that:

The emotional processing circuits were most active in mothers.
Part-time fathers in male/female relationships showed the most activity in the areas responsible for interpreting and responding to social cues.
Full-time caregiving gay fathers showed activity in both regions, and even showed cross talk between those areas.