Exploring the neural basis for paternal protection: an investigation of the neural response to infants in danger

Anna E. van 't Veer, Sandra Thijssen, Jurriaan Witteman, Marinus H. van IJzendoorn, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Perceiving potential threat to an infant and responding to it is crucial for offspring survival and parent-child bonding. Using a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and multi-informant reports, this longitudinal study explores the neural basis for paternal responses to threat to infants pre-natally (N = 21) and early post-natally (n = 17). Participants viewed videos showing an infant in danger and matched control videos, while instructed to imagine that the infant was their own or someone else's. Effects were found for infant-threatening vs neutral situations in the amygdala (region-of-interest analyses) and in clusters spanning cortical and subcortical areas (whole-brain analyses). An interaction effect revealed increased activation for own (vs unknown) infants in threatening (vs neutral) situations in bilateral motor areas, possibly indicating preparation for action. Post-natal activation patterns were similar; however, in part of the superior frontal gyrus the distinction between threat to own and unknown infant faded. Fathers showing more protective behavior in daily life recruited part of the frontal pole more when confronted with threat to their own vs an unknown infant. This exploratory study is the first to describe neural mechanisms involved in paternal protection and provides a basis for future work on fathers' protective parenting.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbernsz018
Pages (from-to)447-457
Number of pages11
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2019


FundersFunder number
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme
European Research Council669249


    • fathers
    • fMRI
    • paternal protection
    • protective behavior toward infant
    • threat processing


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