Original Article

Neuropsychopharmacology (2009) 34, 2655–2666; doi:10.1038/npp.2009.103; published online 26 August 2009

Adult Attachment Predicts Maternal Brain and Oxytocin Response to Infant Cues

Lane Strathearn1,2,3, Peter Fonagy4,5, Janet Amico6,7 and P Read Montague2,5

  1. 1Department of Pediatrics, The Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Houston, TX, USA
  2. 2Department of Neuroscience, Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, One Baylor Plaza, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA
  3. 3School of Medicine, The University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia
  4. 4Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, University College London, Gower St, London, UK
  5. 5Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, One Baylor Plaza, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA
  6. 6Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
  7. 7Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Correspondence: Dr L Strathearn, The Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, One Baylor Plaza S-104, Houston, TX 77030, USA. Tel: +1 713 798 3822, Fax: +1 713 798 4488, E-mail: lanes@bcm.edu

Received 15 November 2008; Revised 15 July 2009; Accepted 16 July 2009; Published online 26 August 2009.

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Abstract

Infant cues, such as smiling or crying facial expressions, are powerful motivators of human maternal behavior, activating dopamine-associated brain reward circuits. Oxytocin, a neurohormone of attachment, promotes maternal care in animals, although its role in human maternal behavior is unclear. We examined 30 first-time new mothers to test whether differences in attachment, based on the Adult Attachment Interview, were related to brain reward and peripheral oxytocin response to infant cues. On viewing their own infant's smiling and crying faces during functional MRI scanning, mothers with secure attachment showed greater activation of brain reward regions, including the ventral striatum, and the oxytocin-associated hypothalamus/pituitary region. Peripheral oxytocin response to infant contact at 7 months was also significantly higher in secure mothers, and was positively correlated with brain activation in both regions. Insecure/dismissing mothers showed greater insular activation in response to their own infant's sad faces. These results suggest that individual differences in maternal attachment may be linked with development of the dopaminergic and oxytocinergic neuroendocrine systems.

Keywords:

attachment, mother–infant relations, dopamine, oxytocin, functional MRI, insula

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