Attachment Disruption and Disorganisation

Attachment Disruption and Disorganisation

Most of the so far described considerations on the social neuroscience of human attachment within this website section relate to organised secure and insecure (avoidant, anxious) attachment. However, attachment theory also includes an attachment classification coded on the basis of relationship-specific behaviour that appears disoriented, conflicted, or apprehensive with regard to a caregiver when the attachment system is activated. Here, SoNeAt Lab’s research into such disrupted and disorganised attachment is presented and discussed in the context of NAMDA.


1. Defining Attachment Disruption and Disorganisation

As described in NAMDA, attachment disorganisation is a heterogeneous phenomenon that calls for the introduction of some sort of differentiation or specification. One possible approach for achieving this aim is to look for dissociable pathways to attachment disorganisation, which reflect specific adaptations to exposure of particular caregiver behaviour. Within this context, NAMDA proposes to distinguish between a hypo- and hyper-arousal subtype of attachment disorganisation primarily deriving from the caregiver serving either as a threatening or as an insufficient source of co-regulation, respectively. In other words, in NAMDA, the ontogeny and aetiology of attachment disorganisation is associated with different experiences of maltreatment, either related to abuse or neglect. Such notion is in line with a dimensional model of childhood adversity involving two central dimensions of threat and deprivation proposed by McLaughlin & Sheridan (e.g., 2016).

Adapted from White et al. (2020)


The above said, NAMDA does not define attachment disorganisation by the direct impact of distinct adverse experiences per se. Instead, NAMDA emphasises that the influence of adverse experiences is filtered through the child’s self- and co-regulatory efforts with their caregivers. The important implication of this notion is that singular maltreatment events in an otherwise nurturing and secure attachment relationship (or early adverse events occurring outside the family context) should have a relatively weak long-term influence, and attachment disorganisation only emerge through chronic exposure to maltreatment. Such consideration reflects a cumulative risk approach (e.g., Evans et al., 2013).

According to these deliberations as part of NAMDA, more research is crucially needed to better understand attachment disorganisation and its underlying neural patterns associated with different and repeated maltreatment experiences. In doing so, it appears particularly promising to distinguish between maltreatment experiences of abuse versus neglect, but also other dimensions like emotional maltreatment. It also remains to be seen whether this dissociation of various maltreatment dimensions differentially translates into direct measures of attachment disorganisation. In a collaborative project with the University Clinic Leipzig (Germany), the SoNeAt Lab therefore is involved in examining functional and structural differences in adolescents with various maltreatment exposures (as compared to controls).


2. Effects of Abuse, Neglect, and Emotional Maltreatment on Brain Activity during Social Exclusion in Adolescents

Taking into consideration both the cumulative risk approach and dimensional model of childhood adversity, we set out to investigate neural responses to social acceptance versus rejection in a sample of 98 adolescents ages 12 to 17, 58 of whom were exposed to maltreatment and 40 were matched nonmaltreated controls. Importantly, we disentangled exposure to different maltreatment subtypes, more specifically abuse, neglect, and emotional maltreatment.

To study neural responses to social acceptance versus rejection, we adapted a widely used virtual ball-tossing game known as “Cyberball“. During Cyberball, a ball is tossed virtually between the study participant and two other players. Classically, there is an initial phase during which all players receive the ball roughly equally (i.e., social inclusion). What then follows is a phase during which the participant is excluded from participating in the game as the other two players almost exclusively toss the ball between themselves (i.e., social exclusion).

Most studies average brain activity during the entire social inclusion and exclusion blocks and compare them to derive a global neural measure of acceptance versus rejection. Initially predominantly associated with a signature thought to reflect “social pain”, rejection during the Cyberball is nowadays related to processes of emotion regulation and social cognition that more robustly emerge in large meta-analyses (e.g., Mwilambwe-Tshilobo et al., 2021; Vijayakumar et al., 2017). In our Cyberball version, we choose to model each movement of the ball as an individual event. Such approach allowed for a much more nuanced investigation of associated neural computations related to particular types of ball tosses.

Data analysis is finalised and the corresponding paper currently under review. More information will be made available here as soon as possible.


3. Associations between Abuse, Neglect, and Emotional Maltreatment and Brain Structure in Adolescents

In the same adolescent participant sample as above, we are also looking at associations between different maltreatment dimensions (abuse, neglect, emotional maltreatment) and brain structure. In a previous study (Puhlmann, Derome, et al.; in press), we recently explored the association between self-reported attachment and neurostructural development throughout adolescence by assessing attachment with a self-report questionnaire in a normative participant sample. Here, a specific focus will be on maltreatment and its relation to brain structure in cross-sectional analysis of early and mid adolescence.

Data analysis is underway. More information will be made available here as soon as possible.