The Neurobiology of Attachment to Nurturing and Abusive Caregivers
Regina M. Sullivan
Volume 63, Issue 6, 1553-1570
Decades of research have shown that childhood experiences interact with our genetics to change the structure and function of the brain. Within the range of normal experiences, this system enables the brain to be modified during development to adapt to various environments and cultures. Experiences with and attachment to the caregiver appear particularly important, and recent research suggests this may be due, in part, to the attachment circuitry within the brain. Children have brain circuitry to ensure attachment to their caregivers. Attachment depends on the offspring learning about the caregiver in a process that begins prenatally and continues through most of early life. This attachment serves two basic functions. First, attachment ensures the infant remain in the proximity of the caregiver to procure resources for survival and protection. Second, attachment “quality programs” the brain. This programming impacts immediate behaviors, as well as behaviors that emerge later in development. Animal research has uncovered segments of the attachment circuitry within the brain and has highlighted rapid, robust learning to support this attachment. A child attaches to the caregiver regardless of the quality of care received, even if the caregiver is abusive and neglectful. While a neural system that ensures attachment regardless of the quality of care has immediate benefits, this attachment comes with a high cost. Traumatic experiences interact with genetics to change the structure and function of the brain, compromising emotional and cognitive development and initiating a pathway to pathology. Neurobiological research on animals suggests that trauma during attachment is processed differently by the brain, with maternal presence dramatically attenuating the fear center of the brain (amygdala). Thus, the immaturity of the brain combined with the unique processing of trauma may underlie the enduring effects of abuse, which remain largely hidden in early life but emerge as mental health issues in periadolescence.