The Genetics and Epigenetics of Attachment

Through international collaborations, I am also able to investigate the genetic and epigenetic correlates of attachment in (young healthy) adults. Inter-individual differences in attachment can be understood as meaningful adaptations to  specific environments, and their emergence therefore to represent a prototypical gene x environment interaction process. By looking at the genetic information in addition to epigenetic markers (i.e. methylation controlling the transcription of genes), we hope to obtain a better insight into the biological mechanisms underlying the environmental adaptations characterizing attachment, and in particular secure versus insecure, avoidant and/or anxious attachment orientations.

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Results from Ein-Dor et al., 2018

In a first paper, we looked at epigenetic modification (degree of methylation) of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and glucocorticoid receptor gene (NR3C1) promoters as a function of self-reported attachment avoidance and anxiety in a sample of 109 young healthy adolescents. The paper is published and freely available here.

Our findings revealed a specific association between the degree of both OXTR and NR3C1 promoter methylation and attachment avoidance (i.e. in participants who scored high on attachment avoidance but low on attachment anxiety). Attachment avoidance may thus be epigenetically characterized by a less active oxytocin system generally thought to be implicated in prosocial processes also comprising mechanisms to cope with stress by seeking proximity to and comfort by others. In addition, attachment avoidance may also be characterized by a more active HPA axis and thus sustained stress, because the glucocorticoid receptor NR3C1 is generally associated with the negative feedback-loop of the HPA axis to shut down the stress response. This may be due to the fact that avoidantly attached individuals tend to be self-reliant and do less likely turn to others to help them (co-)regulating stress, which may be a less effective / more costly stress-regulation strategy.

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More research in this exciting and new field of research are needed, also comprising replication and extension of the results we obtained in our first study reported above.