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Functional significance of hormonal changes in mammalian fathers

  • Author(s): Saltzman, W
  • Ziegler, TE
  • et al.

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© 2014 British Society for Neuroendocrinology. In the 5-10% of mammals in which both parents routinely provide infant care, fathers as well as mothers undergo systematic endocrine changes as they transition into parenthood. Although fatherhood-associated changes in such hormones and neuropeptides as prolactin, testosterone, glucocorticoids, vasopressin and oxytocin have been characterised in only a small number of biparental rodents and primates, they appear to be more variable than corresponding changes in mothers, and experimental studies typically have not provided strong or consistent evidence that these endocrine shifts play causal roles in the activation of paternal care. Consequently, their functional significance remains unclear. We propose that endocrine changes in mammalian fathers may enable males to meet the species-specific demands of fatherhood by influencing diverse aspects of their behaviour and physiology, similar to many effects of hormones and neuropeptides in mothers. We review the evidence for such effects, focusing on recent studies investigating whether mammalian fathers in biparental species undergo systematic changes in (i) energetics and body composition; (ii) neural plasticity, cognition and sensory physiology; and (iii) stress responsiveness and emotionality, all of which may be mediated by endocrine changes. The few published studies, based on a small number of rodent and primate species, suggest that hormonal and neuropeptide alterations in mammalian fathers might mediate shifts in paternal energy balance, body composition and neural plasticity, although they do not appear to have major effects on stress responsiveness or emotionality. Further research is needed on a wider variety of biparental mammals, under more naturalistic conditions, to more fully determine the functional significance of hormone and neuropeptide profiles of mammalian fatherhood and to clarify how fatherhood may trade off with (or perhaps enhance) aspects of organismal function in biparental mammals.

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