Parental status and markers of brain and cellular age: A 3D convolutional network and classification study

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2024 Apr 2:165:107040. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2024.107040. Online ahead of print.


Recent research shows prominent effects of pregnancy and the parenthood transition on structural brain characteristics in humans. Here, we present a comprehensive study of how parental status and number of children born/fathered links to markers of brain and cellular ageing in 36,323 UK Biobank participants (age range 44.57-82.06 years; 52% female). To assess global effects of parenting on the brain, we trained a 3D convolutional neural network on T1-weighted magnetic resonance images, and estimated brain age in a held-out test set. To investigate regional specificity, we extracted cortical and subcortical volumes using FreeSurfer, and ran hierarchical clustering to group regional volumes based on covariance. Leukocyte telomere length (LTL) derived from DNA was used as a marker of cellular ageing. We employed linear regression models to assess relationships between number of children, brain age, regional brain volumes, and LTL, and included interaction terms to probe sex differences in associations. Lastly, we used the brain measures and LTL as features in binary classification models, to determine if markers of brain and cellular ageing could predict parental status. The results showed associations between a greater number of children born/fathered and younger brain age in both females and males, with stronger effects observed in females. Volume-based analyses showed maternal effects in striatal and limbic regions, which were not evident in fathers. We found no evidence for associations between number of children and LTL. Classification of parental status showed an Area under the ROC Curve (AUC) of 0.57 for the brain age model, while the models using regional brain volumes and LTL as predictors showed AUCs of 0.52. Our findings align with previous population-based studies of middle- and older-aged parents, revealing subtle but significant associations between parental experience and neuroimaging-based surrogate markers of brain health. The findings further corroborate results from longitudinal cohort studies following parents across pregnancy and postpartum, potentially indicating that the parenthood transition is associated with long-term influences on brain health.

Keywords: Brain age; Deep learning; Parenting; Population imaging; Pregnancy; Telomere length.