The Neural Substrates of Attachment in Adolescents

Adolescence is a crucial developmental period not only marked by important changes in brain anatomy and physiology, but also in a person’s attachment settings. Whereas in early life, attachment figures are mostly parents and/or other close family members, adolescence is characterized by the emergence of additional attachment relationships outside the family context including friends, peers, and romantic partners. It therefore appears important to investigate the neural basis of attachment and attachment orientations during adolescence to better understand the underlying brain mechanisms.

Experimental Design from Vrticka et al. (2008, 2014)

In a first fMRI study of this kind, we looked at brain activations to congruent versus incongruent social feedback processing in 33 healthy adolescents (aged 12 to 19) as a function of their age, sex, and attachment style. The corresponding paper is published and is freely available here.

Our results showed that attachment avoidance appears to influence brain activity during social feedback processing in the opposite direction of observed “normal” developmental effects. In other words, whereas increasing age seemed to be associated with a tendency to more strongly process incongruent social feedback, attachment avoidance appeared to show an inverse activation pattern – that is, a stronger focus on congruent social feedback. Our findings therefore suggest that attachment avoidance may incur less mature processing of social feedback during adolescence. High attachment avoidance may thus preclude the usually observed “opening up” to social information in terms of social sensitivity in the course of adolescent development.

What is concerning attachment anxiety, observed effects were comparable with activation patterns related to age – that is, increased brain activity during incongruent social feedback processing. Because such attachment anxiety effects remained significant when controlling for age, our findings suggest that attachment anxiety may be associated with a stronger focus on incongruent social feedback processing representing social conflict more generally. Some implications of the above described findings are discussed in my blog on Attachment Style and Brain Activity in Adolescents.

Experimental Design from Debbane et al. (2017)

In a second fMRI study, we investigated the neural basis of self- versus other-perception in 44 healthy adolescents (aged 12 to 19) as a function of their attachment-derived internal self- and other-working models (IWMs). Attachment theory suggests that, through IWMs, attachment security and insecurity is associated with distinct representations of the self and others. Attachment security is usually characterized by positive self- and other-models. In turn, attachment insecurity is normally linked to disturbed self- and other-representations. More specifically, attachment avoidance is associated with an overly positive self- but a negative other-view, whereas attachment anxiety is linked to a more ambivalent self- and other representation. However, how such disturbed self- and other-views associated with attachment insecurity relate to brain activity during social emotional processing remains largely unknown. The corresponding paper is published and freely available here.

Our data revealed that participants with a more negative attachment-derived self-model showed increased brain activity during positive and negative adjective evaluation regarding the self, but decreased brain activity during negative adjective evaluation regarding a close other, in bilateral amygdala/parahippocampus, bilateral anterior temporal pole/anterior superior temporal gyrus, and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that a low positivity of the self-concept characteristic for the attachment anxiety dimension may influence neural information processing, but in opposite directions when it comes to self- versus (close) other-representations. We discuss our results in the framework of attachment theory and regarding their implication especially for adolescent social-emotional development and social integration.