3 Apr 2022


Neurobiology and Endocrinology of Attachment Behavior

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Interpersonal relations between humans determine how people respond to others, how they react when they separate from their loved one, when they get hurt or when they feel threatened. The attachment created between people is greatly influenced by the neuroendocrine system. This document will discuss the neurobiology of attachment behavior as well as the endocrinology of the behavior. 

According to a report by Phil Rich, attachment is an evolutionary and evolved process that ensures species survival. The report explains that attachment is not merely a psychological phenomenon; it is a physical thing that is hard- wired into the neural circuits of an individual and it is replicated in the neurochemical and electrical activity within the nervous system of human beings. This implies that mental map where memories and experiences are stored is a neurological structure that is caused by synaptic processes. The memories and experiences create human behavior and cognition. The synaptic processes lead to the creation of the ‘synaptic’ self. Rich explains that the integration of the neurochemical activity with the nervous system determines how separate functioning neural structures and processes interact and combine to form a functional whole that is our synaptic self (Rich, 2005). 

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Rich expounds that physical behavior (such as emotion and thought) only occurs at the neural level. However, the translation of the physical activity of the brain occurs in non- physical cognitive and emotional mental processes. As a result, the brains activity is expressed in social interactions and human behavior; these interactions arouse cognition and effect that is further transliterated back to the brain by using the resulting synaptic activity and the experience that is encoded in neural memories. Psychological and behavioral states are defined by neurological processes which are as a result of experience. How people act and behave is determined by the synaptic organization of the brain (Carter, Lederhendler, & Kirkpatrick, 1997). 

In the physiology of attachment, several researches have been conducted in autonomic responses and the activity of the hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal axis. Autonomic responses include heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, urination, pupillary responses and sexual arousal. Autonomic nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight or flight response’ (sympathetic division) and the ‘rest and digest’ response (parasympathetic division). The ‘fight or flight’ response is produced in situations when quick responses are required such as during danger. In these situations, a child will depend on the person they are attached to the most. When a child is attached to a person, they will respond differently as compared to situations the person is a stranger. Furthermore, the rate of autonomic responses such as the heart rate will also change (Fox and Hane, 2008). 

The parasympathetic nervous system response is slower than the sympathetic. In the brain, this nervous system is controlled by the hypothalamus that receives regulatory input from the limbic system. How infants react to stress; whether flight or fight or rest was determined by the autonomic responses. The autonomic system has been studied in infants and revealed that during strange situations, infant temperaments differ depending on the level of attachment which is in turn affected by the autonomic responses. Most autonomic functions are involuntary and therefore there is no control over them. This implies that, a child’s attachment is not predetermined by the child but because of autonomous responses to a stimulant (Fox and Hane, 2008). 

The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal cortex axis has been studied to find its relation to attachment behavior. The three endocrine glands control reactions to stress and regulate body processes such as mood and emotions among others. The Para- ventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus contains neuroendocrine neurons which synthesize and secrete vasopressin and corticotrophin- releasing hormone (CRH). CRH and vasopressin regulate the adrenal cortex that produce the glucocorticoid hormone (in human, cortisone is commonly produced). The glucocorticoid hormone is produce as a response to adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation. When Cortisol in human is produced it acts on the hypothalamus and pituitary thereby suppressing CRH and ACTH production. This is a negative CRH cycle. The positive cycle involves the regulation of the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland by vasopressin and corticotrophin releasing hormone. The two peptides stimulate the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The release of cortisol regulates the level of stress and in turn affects moods and emotions (Landers and Sullivan, 2012). 

In a research to find out the correlation of ecologically valid infants to plasma oxytocin, mothers were scanned with special attention on nucleus accumbens (NAcc). It was discovered that synchronous mothers have greater activations in the left nucleus accumbens while intrusive mothers had higher activations in the right amygdala. Further analysis of functional connectivity showed that in synchronous mothers, the left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally associated with emotional intonation, empathy networks and theory of mind. On the other hand, intrusive mothers left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally correlated with pro- action areas. Synchronous mothers have well organized nuclei exhibition cross time. In the synchronous mothers, there is existence of correlations between oxytocin and right amygdala and NAcc. Although this research mainly reflects the attachment between a mother and a child, the processes can be used to discuss attachment in any human relationship (Atzil, Handler and Feldman, 2011).


Atzil, S., Handler, T. and Feldman, R. (2011). Specifying the Neurobiological Basis of Human Attachment: Brain, Hormones and Behavior in Synchronous and Intrusive Mothers. Neuropsychopharmacology 36 (13): 2603- 2615

Carter, C. S., Lederhendler, I. I., & Kirkpatrick, B. (1997). Introduction. The integrative neurobiology of affiliation; New York, The New York Academy of Sciences: 16- 18

Fox, N. A. and Hane, A. A. (2008). Studying the Biology of Human Attachment. Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York and London: Guilford Press: 811-829. 

Landers, M. S. and Sullivan R. M. (2012). The Development and Neurobiology of Infant Attachment and Fear. Developmental Neuroscience 34 (3): 101-114 

Rich, P. The Neural Self: The Neurobiology Of Attachment : 1-6. Print 

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