The Neural Substrates of Attachment in Children and Parents

Attachment in Children and Parents

General Introduction

While the literature on the neural basis of attachment in adults is steadily growing and first findings on the same mechanisms in adolescents are starting to emerge, it remains largely unknown how individual differences in attachment influence brain activation in parents and children. Although nice research by Lane Strathearn and colleagues (see here and here) showed that mothers’ brain responses to images of own (versus unknown) children can be importantly altered by attachment insecurity – particularly attachment avoidance –, the literature on the neural substrates of attachment in parents, and especially fathers, is very scarce. Furthermore, there is no literature available yet on how an avoidant and/or anxious attachment orientation may influence 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 years. Experiments mainly focus on fMRI in single participants (children; fathers and mothers) and attachment in all of them is measured using validated age-appropriate self-reports and/or semi-structured narrative interview techniques.

The Neural Substrates of Attachment in Children

In a first study conducted some years ago at Stanford University, 8-12 years old children performed two social emotional tasks in the fMRI scanner: 1) a social feedback processing task (already previously used 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). 

The corresponding paper is now 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.

More information will be provided here as soon as possible.

The Neural Substrates of Attachment in Parents

Parents (both mothers and fathers) from a different study are also performing 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. Attachment in adults is measured with the self-report questionnaire Experiences in Close Relationships revised (ECR-R), the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), as well as video-ratings of the parent-child interaction. These data are acquired in association with the D-CARE and M-CARE projects (see here).

More information will be posted here as soon as it becomes available.