Neurobiology of infant attachment

Dev Psychobiol. 2005 Nov;47(3):230-42. doi: 10.1002/dev.20093.


A strong attachment to the caregiver is critical for survival in altricial species, including humans. While some behavioral aspects of attachment have been characterized, its neurobiology has only recently received attention. Using a mammalian imprinting model, we are assessing the neural circuitry that enables infant rats to attach quickly to a caregiver, thus enhancing survival in the nest. Specifically, the hyper-functioning noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) enables pups to learn rapid, robust preference for the caregiver. Conversely, a hypo-functional amygdala appears to prevent the infant from learning aversions to the caregiver. Adult LC and amygdala functional emergence correlates with sensitive period termination. This study suggests the neonatal brain is not an immature version of the adult brain but is uniquely designed to optimize attachment to the caregiver. Although human attachment may not rely on identical circuitry, the work reviewed here suggests a new conceptual framework in which to explore human attachments, particularly attachments to abusive caregivers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Amygdala
  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Critical Period, Psychological
  • Genomic Imprinting / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant, Newborn / physiology*
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiology
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Object Attachment*
  • Olfactory Bulb / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Rats