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Brain activity and infant attachment history in young men during loss and reward processing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2017

Karina Quevedo*
University of Minnesota
Theodore E. A. Waters
New York University Abu Dhabi
Hannah Scott
University of Minnesota
Glenn I. Roisman
University of Minnesota
Daniel S. Shaw
University of Pittsburgh
Erika E. Forbes
University of Pittsburgh
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Karina Quevedo, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Room F260, University of Minnesota, Department of Psychiatry, 2450 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454; E-mail:


There is now ample evidence that the quality of early attachment experiences shapes expectations for supportive and responsive care and ultimately serves to scaffold adaptation to the salient tasks of development. Nonetheless, few studies have identified neural mechanisms that might give rise to these associations. Using a moderately large sample of low-income male participants recruited during infancy (N = 171), we studied the predictive significance of attachment insecurity and disorganization at age 18 months (as measured in the Strange Situation Procedure) for patterns of neural activation to reward and loss at age 20 years (assessed during a reward-based task as part of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan). Results indicated that individuals with a history of insecure attachment showed hyperactivity in (a) reward- and emotion-related (e.g., basal ganglia and amygdala) structures and (b) emotion regulation and self-referential processing (cortical midline structures) in response to positive and negative outcomes (and anticipation of those outcomes). Further, the neural activation of individuals with a history of disorganized attachment suggested that they had greater emotional reactivity in anticipation of reward and employed greater cognitive control when negative outcomes were encountered. Overall, results suggest that the quality of early attachments has lasting impacts on brain function and reward processing.

Special Issue Articles
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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This research was supported by K01MH092601 (to K.Q.) and grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant 25630 to D.S.S.) and (Grant 26222 to D.S.S. and E.E.F.). We are grateful to Dr. Kathleen Thomas and Dr. Mary Phillips, key mentors and supporter of the first author's K award and progress.


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