Can a father’s past stressors impact his child’s brain development?


It’s been long understood that a mother’s health and life before pregnancy can have an impact on her offspring’s development. An investigation offers some insight into how a father’s early life stress can alter his offspring’s brain development.

Much focus has been given to a mother’s life and health before and during pregnancy and the impact that may have on her offspring, but only in recent years has it become clear that the same factors from fathers also have an impact on their child’s development. A report in JAMA Network Open examines whether a link exists between a father’s early life stress exposure and his newborn offspring’s brain development.1

Researchers use participants from the prospective 2-generation FinnBrain Birth Cohort, which collected data from 2011 to 2015. The mothers and fathers were recruited at gestation week 12 from maternity clinics all over Finland. Information on parental early life stress was found using the Trauma and Distress Scale, which covers 5 different areas: emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. They calculated cumulative exposure for all parents until age 18 years. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to look at the brain development and imaging occurred during the child’s natural sleep cycle.

The investigators looked at 72 trios of infant, mother, and father. At delivery, the average age of the father was 31.0 years and 30.3 years for mothers. Forty-one of the infants were boys. They found that increasing levels of a father’s early life stress was linked with higher fractional anisotropy values in the newborn brain in the right superior corona radiata, retrolenticular parts of the internal capsule, and the body of the corpus callosum. This link persisted even after controlling for the mother’s early life stress, maternal body mass index, maternal socioeconomic status, child sex, child age from birth as well as gestation corrected age when imaged, and maternal depressive symptoms during pregnancy. The link between fractional anisotropy values and the Trauma and Distress Scale sum scores were statistically significant in the regions of the brain that mature earliest eg, the genu of the corpus callosum (in the regression models, β = 0.00096; 95% CI, 0.00034-0.00158; P = .003) and the splenium (β = 0.00090; 95% CI, 0.00000-0.00180; P = .049).

The researchers concluded that there was a statistically significant link between a father’s early life stress and his offspring’s brain development. It adds yet more evidence that both parents’ live before conception can have an impact of their child.


1. Karlsson H, Merisaari H, Karlsson L et al. Association of cumulative paternal early life stress with white matter maturation in newborns. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(11):e2024832. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.24832

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