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Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Jun 15;67(12):1137-45. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2009.12.019. Epub 2010 Feb 16.

Developing a neurobehavioral animal model of infant attachment to an abusive caregiver.

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Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, Orangeburg, New York, NY, USA.



Both abused and well cared for infants show attachment to their caregivers, although the quality of that attachment differs. Moreover, the infant's attachment to the abusive caregiver is associated with compromised mental health, especially under stress. In an attempt to better understand how abuse by the caregiver can compromise mental health, we explore the neural basis of attachment in both typical and abusive environments using infant rats, which form attachments to the mother through learning her odor. Here, we hypothesize that the neural circuitry for infant attachment differs based on the quality of the attachment, which can be uncovered during stressful situations.


We used infant rats to compare infant attachment social behaviors and supporting neurobiology using natural maternal odor, as well as two odor-learning attachment paradigms: odor-stroke (mimics typical attachment) and odor-.5 mA shock conditioning (mimics abusive attachment). Next, to uncover differences in behavior and brain, these pups were injected with systemic corticosterone. Finally, pups were reared with an abusive mother to determine ecological relevance.


Our results suggest that the natural and learned attachment odors indistinguishably control social behavior in infancy (approach to the odor and interactions with the mother). However, with corticosterone injection, pups with an abusive attachment show disrupted infant social behavior with the mother and engagement of the amygdala.


This animal model of attachment accommodates both abusive and typical attachment and suggests that pups' social behavior and underlying neural circuitry may provide clues to understanding attachment in children with various conditions of care.

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