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Biological Bases of Individual Variation in Paternal Nurturance

Principal Investigators:

James K. Rilling, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University
Richmond R. Thompson, Ph.D., Associate Professor Psychology Department/ Neuroscience Program, Bowdoin College

In our society, fathers appear to play an important role in empowering children and in opening them to the outside world, and paternal involvement is associated with multiple positive developmental outcomes, including IQ at age 3, high social and academic competence, and high levels of empathy, generosity and closeness. Not all men are equally inclined towards parenting however, and some devote more resources to "mating effort" than to parenting. The overall goal of this project is to identify the genetic, hormonal, and neurobiological influences on paternal nurturing behavior and to determine if fathers' neural response to infants can be modulated by neuropeptides known to play a role in parenting in experimental animal models. To that end, we will recruit fathers to 1) answer questionnaires about their paternal behavior, 2) provide blood samples for measurement of hormone levels, 3) provide saliva samples for genotyping analyses and 4) receive an fMRI brain scan as they view both pictures of infant (their own and others) and sexual stimuli. Fathers will be compared with non-fathers with respect to hormone levels, genotype and neural responses to both infant and sexual stimuli. Additionally, more nurturing fathers will be compared with less nurturing fathers. Finally, a subgroup of less nurturing fathers will be randomized to either intranasal oxytocin, intranasal vasopressin or intranasal placebo treatment and scanned a second time with fMRI to measure the effect of these attachment-related neuropeptides on the neural response to both infant and sexual stimuli.


James K. Rilling, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University. Dr. Rilling received his B.S. in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Emory University in 1998. He then completed two postdoctoral fellowships in neuroimaging, one in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University and a second at the Center for the Study of Mind, Brain and Behavior at Princeton University. Dr. Rilling and collaborators use functional neuroimaging and interactive social games to investigate the neural systems that support cooperative and non-cooperative behavior in humans. His lab also uses a variety of non-invasive neuroimaging techniques to compare brain structure and function in humans, apes and monkeys, with the goal of identifying human brain specializations and informing our knowledge of human brain evolution.

Richmond R. Thompson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Bowdoin College. Dr. Thompson received his B.S. in psychology and biology from Furman University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in Biopsychology from Cornell University in 1996. He then completed a three year postdoctoral fellowship in the Zoology department at Oregon State University. Dr. Thompson's research focuses on how the brain processes social stimuli and on how it uses that information to organize behavioral output, especially emotional interactions between individuals. In particular, he is interested in the effects of sex steroids on brain structures that process social signals and that organize sexual and aggressive behaviors and in the role that neuropeptide brain circuits play in the modulation of social behavior. He uses many different tools to answer these questions, including behavioral, neuroanatomical and molecular techniques.

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