Developing a sense of safety: the neurobiology of neonatal attachment

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Dec;1008:122-31. doi: 10.1196/annals.130.013.


Clinical data suggests a strong negative impact of traumatic attachments on adult mental illness, presumably through organizing brain development. To further explore this clinical issue, a mammalian model of imprinting was developed to characterize the neural basis of attachment in both healthy and traumatic attachments. The altricial neonatal rat must learn the mother's odor for nipple attachment, huddling, and orienting to the mother, all of which are required for pup survival. While it appears maladaptive to depend upon learning for attachment, the unique learning system of neonatal pups greatly enhances odor-preference learning and attachment while pups are confined to the nest. This heightened learning is expressed behaviorally as an enhanced ability to acquire learned odor preferences and a decreased ability to acquire learned odor aversions. Specifically, both odor-milk and odor-shock (0.5 mA) conditioning result in odor-preference acquisition. It appears as though there are at least three brain structures underlying the neonatal rat's sensitive period for heightened odor learning: (1) odor learning is encoded in the olfactory bulb; (2) the hyperfunctioning noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) appears to support preference conditioning through release of NE; and (3) the hypofunctioning amygdala appears to underlie pups' difficulty in learning odor aversions. Overall, this suggests that the CNS of altricial infants is specialized for optimizing attachments to their caregiver.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Environment*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / psychology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiology
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Norepinephrine / physiology
  • Object Attachment*
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology*
  • Safety*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology


  • Hydrocortisone
  • Norepinephrine