The Neural Substrates of Attachment & Caregiving in Children and Parents

The Neural Substrates of
Attachment & Caregiving in Children and Parents


The literature on the neural basis of attachment in adults – especially romantic partners – is steadily growing. First findings on similar mechanisms in adolescents are starting to emerge as well. However, it remains largely unknown how individual differences in attachment – and related caregiving – associate with brain activation, structure and connectivity in parents and children. Although nice research by Lane Strathearn and colleagues (see, for example, here and here) shows that mothers’ brain responses to images of own (versus unknown) children are related to individual differences in maternal attachment – particularly secure attachment versus attachment avoidance –, the literature on the neural substrates of attachment and caregiving in parents, and especially fathers, remains scarce. Furthermore, there is no literature available yet on how an avoidant and/or anxious attachment may be linked with brain responses in children themselves.

To close this gap, Dr Pascal Vrticka has started a new line of research in collaboration with the CIBSR at Stanford University in children aged 8 to 12 years, and with the University of Vienna and MPI CBS Leipzig in parents – both fathers and mothers – of children aged 5-6 years (also see CARE Studies for the latter). Investigations mainly focus on fMRI in individual participants (children; fathers and mothers) and attachment and/or caregiving is measured using validated behavioural measures, age-appropriate self-reports and/or semi-structured narrative interview techniques.

Please note that there is an additional page on Dr Vrticka’s website specifically dedicated to Caring Dads: The Social Neuroscience of Attachment & Caregiving in Fathers.

The Neural Substrates of Attachment in Children

In a first study conducted some years ago at Stanford University, 8-12 year-old children performed two social emotional tasks in the fMRI scanner: 1) a social feedback processing task (already previously employed in adults and adolescents), and 2) a newly designed own versus mother face morph task. Attachment in children to their parents was measured with the child version of the self-report questionnaire Experiences in Close Relationships revised (ECR-RC). 

Adapted from Miller et al. (2020)

Our results revealed no associations between brain activity and individual differences in attachment for the social feedback processing task. However, we observed a relationship between child attachment anxiety and brain activity during the own versus mother face morph task in the left anterior temporal pole (ATP). While activity was strongest for the (unmorphed) own and mother face in infants scoring low in attachment anxiety, it was strongest for the morphed faces in infants scoring high in attachment anxiety. In other words, greater attachment anxiety was related to a shift from heightened processing of self and mother faces to morphed faces. These findings suggest that some children may exhibit too much neural sensitivity to overlapping self–mother representations, and are interesting from the perspective that attachment security is related to the development of an autonomous self.

The corresponding paper is freely available: Miller, J., Shrestha, S., Reiss, A. L., Vrtička, P. (2020). Neural Bases of Social Feedback Processing and Self-Other Distinction in Late Childhood: The Role of Attachment and Age. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, Volume 20, Pages 503-520. ACCESS.

The Neural Substrates of Attachment and Caregiving in Parents

Parents (both mothers and fathers) from a different study also performed two social emotional tasks in the fMRI scanner, comprising an emotional facial expression processing task from own versus unknown children, as well as a virtual ball-tossing game with the own versus an unknown child. Furthermore, parents’ brain anatomy was obtained with a structural scan.

Attachment in parents was assessed with the self-report questionnaire Experiences in Close Relationships revised (ECR-R) as well as the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). Video-ratings of a parent-child interaction task (during fNIRS hyperscanning – see here) and parent self-reports pertaining to parent-child relationship quality and caregiving were also collected. These data are part of the D-CARE and M-CARE projects (see here).

In a first study, we analysed brain structure, and particularly hypothalamus volume, in 50 fathers of 5-6 year old children and 45 non-fathering men as controls.

The human hypothalamus (large panel, green) and its subregions (small panel)

Self-reported caregiving beliefs, including belief in the importance of a father’s role and enjoyment of the child, were positively related to total hypothalamus volume in fathers. A follow-up analysis furthermore showed that fathers’ caregiving beliefs were related specifically to tuberal hypothalamus volume, while enjoyment of the child was not associated with volume in any specific hypothalamus sub-region. We did not observe any significant associations between hypothalamus volume and attachment style across all men (after correction for multiple comparisons), and no difference in hypothalamus volume between fathers and non-fathers.

Together, this study suggests that there is interindividual variability in the association between brain structure and caregiving beliefs in fathers, warranting further research.

►University of Essex Press Release
The Conversation UK piece on this study

Original Reference:
Long, M., Puhlmann, L., Vrtička, P. (published online October 27, 2021). Hypothalamus volume in men: Investigating associations with paternal status, self-reported caregiving beliefs and adult attachment styleSocial Neuroscience PREPRINT [link]

More information is to come soon. Please note that there is an additional page on Dr Vrticka’s website specifically dedicated to Caring Dads: The Social Neuroscience of Attachment & Caregiving in Fathers.