Adult attachment style is associated with cerebral μ-opioid receptor availability in humans

Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Sep;36(9):3621-8. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22866. Epub 2015 Jun 5.


Human attachment behavior mediates establishment and maintenance of social relationships. Adult attachment characteristically varies on anxiety and avoidance dimensions, reflecting the tendencies to worry about the partner breaking the social bond (anxiety) and feeling uncomfortable about depending on others (avoidance). In primates and other mammals, the endogenous μ-opioid system is linked to long-term social bonding, but evidence of its role in human adult attachment remains more limited. We used in vivo positron emission tomography to reveal how variability in μ-opioid receptor (MOR) availability is associated with adult attachment in humans. We scanned 49 healthy subjects using a MOR-specific ligand [(11) C]carfentanil and measured their attachment avoidance and anxiety with the Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised scale. The avoidance dimension of attachment correlated negatively with MOR availability in the thalamus and anterior cingulate cortex, as well as the frontal cortex, amygdala, and insula. No associations were observed between MOR availability and the anxiety dimension of attachment. Our results suggest that the endogenous opioid system may underlie interindividual differences in avoidant attachment style in human adults, and that differences in MOR availability are associated with the individuals' social relationships and psychosocial well-being.

Keywords: attachment; emotion; neurotransmitters; opioids; positron emission tomography; social interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Female
  • Fentanyl / analogs & derivatives
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Object Attachment*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Psychological Tests
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult


  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • OPRM1 protein, human
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • carfentanil
  • Fentanyl