Individual attachment style modulates human amygdala and striatum activation during social appraisal

PLoS One. 2008 Aug 6;3(8):e2868. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002868.


Adult attachment style refers to individual personality traits that strongly influence emotional bonds and reactions to social partners. Behavioral research has shown that adult attachment style reflects profound differences in sensitivity to social signals of support or conflict, but the neural substrates underlying such differences remain unsettled. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined how the three classic prototypes of attachment style (secure, avoidant, anxious) modulate brain responses to facial expressions conveying either positive or negative feedback about task performance (either supportive or hostile) in a social game context. Activation of striatum and ventral tegmental area was enhanced to positive feedback signaled by a smiling face, but this was reduced in participants with avoidant attachment, indicating relative impassiveness to social reward. Conversely, a left amygdala response was evoked by angry faces associated with negative feedback, and correlated positively with anxious attachment, suggesting an increased sensitivity to social punishment. Secure attachment showed mirror effects in striatum and amygdala, but no other specific correlate. These results reveal a critical role for brain systems implicated in reward and threat processing in the biological underpinnings of adult attachment style, and provide new support to psychological models that have postulated two separate affective dimensions to explain these individual differences, centered on the ventral striatum and amygdala circuits, respectively. These findings also demonstrate that brain responses to face expressions are not driven by facial features alone but determined by the personal significance of expressions in current social context. By linking fundamental psychosocial dimensions of adult attachment with brain function, our results do not only corroborate their biological bases but also help understand their impact on behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Feedback
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Reaction Time
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Support*