If becoming a parent made you feel like a different person, you're not alone. Scientists have spent years trying to figure out just how becoming a parent changes our brains, and how those changes may have a bigger impact on humankind over time. Now, scientists are exploring how parenting changes the brain — by looking at bugs, according to The Atlantic.
The phenomenon of "mom brain" has been studied for years, and recent research has shown that fatherhood actually rewires a man's brain, too, according to Science Magazine. While that's plenty interesting on its own, scientists have definitely been curious about what these changes have meant for humanity over time. They've been interested in studying how the brain changes parents undergo over the course of generations have influenced human evolution and genetics.
Researchers at The University of Georgia used an insect model to try to answer some of these questions about what, exactly, changes in the brain when an organism goes from a "non-parenting" to "parenting" state, according to Science Daily. The researchers used a particular kind of beetle that's often used to help scientists study social behavior. Nicrophorus vespilloides, or the burying beetle, is actually a pretty involved parent as far as non-human subjects, go: unlike some members of the animal kingdom, the burying beetle spends time with its offspring, which includes regurgitating food for them before they're mature enough to feed themselves.
Since not all organisms demonstrate these types of parenting behaviors, the scientists went looking for differences on a genetic level that could explain where those behaviors come from — not just in beetles, but people too.
They specifically studied little proteins in the brain called neuropeptides, which help the brain's neurons send messages to one another, according to a University of Georgia press release for the study. Neuropeptides often have a lot of influence on behavioral patterns, like sleeping, eating, mating, aggression, and social behaviors.
When scientists looked at the neuropeptides in beetles before parenthood versus after they became parents, they noticed a major change, according to Nature. The neuropeptides definitely evolved as the beetle began engaging in parenting behaviors. This information could help scientists better understand how, in many organisms, not just beetles and humans, not only can our behavior influence our brain, but it might actually modify our genes.
When our genes are altered, usually as a result of things in our environment, our own behaviors and health, and other factors that science doesn't totally understand yet, it changes the course of human evolution in big ways. This type of research could help us understand how parenting has changed throughout human history, but also generationally. While social expectations and the research du jour tends to wield its influence over how we raise our kids, we're also likely to be aware of the parenting choices our parents made. Some of them we might repeat, but others we may not. How parenting evolves from one generation to the next, then, is based on how we relate to not just our experiences, but our genetics — and whether our neuropeptides change in response to the decisions we make.
More research like this is needed to understand the interplay between genetics, behavior, and brain power in humans, though, since we generally have more complex parenting responsibilities than beetles do.