Specifying the neurobiological basis of human attachment: Brain, hormones, and behavior in synchronous and intrusive mothers

Shir Atzil, Talma Hendler, Ruth Feldman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

274 Scopus citations


The mother-infant bond provides the foundation for the infant's future mental health and adaptation and depends on the provision of species-typical maternal behaviors that are supported by neuroendocrine and motivation-affective neural systems. Animal research has demonstrated that natural variations in patterns of maternal care chart discrete profiles of maternal brain-behavior relationships that uniquely shape the infant's lifetime capacities for stress regulation and social affiliation. Such patterns of maternal care are mediated by the neuropeptide Oxytocin and by stress-and reward-related neural systems. Human studies have similarly shown that maternal synchronythe coordination of maternal behavior with infant signalsand intrusivenessthe excessive expression of maternal behaviordescribe distinct and stable maternal styles that bear long-term consequences for infant well-being. To integrate brain, hormones, and behavior in the study of maternal-infant bonding, we examined the fMRI responses of synchronous vs intrusive mothers to dynamic, ecologically valid infant videos and their correlations with plasma Oxytocin. In all, 23 mothers were videotaped at home interacting with their infants and plasma OT assayed. Sessions were micro-coded for synchrony and intrusiveness. Mothers were scanned while observing several own and standard infant-related vignettes. Synchronous mothers showed greater activations in the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and intrusive mothers exhibited higher activations in the right amygdala. Functional connectivity analysis revealed that among synchronous mothers, left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally correlated with emotion modulation, theory-of-mind, and empathy networks. Among intrusive mothers, left NAcc and right amygdala were functionally correlated with pro-action areas. Sorting points into neighborhood (SPIN) analysis demonstrated that in the synchronous group, left NAcc and right amygdala activations showed clearer organization across time, whereas among intrusive mothers, activations of these nuclei exhibited greater cross-time disorganization. Correlations between Oxytocin with left NAcc and right amygdala activations were found only in the synchronous group. Well-adapted parenting appears to be underlay by reward-related motivational mechanisms, temporal organization, and affiliation hormones, whereas anxious parenting is likely mediated by stress-related mechanisms and greater neural disorganization. Assessing the integration of motivation and social networks into unified neural activity that reflects variations in patterns of parental care may prove useful for the study of optimal vs high-risk parenting.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2603-2615
Number of pages13
Issue number13
StatePublished - Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Dr Roi Avraham for his help in the SPIN analysis, and Dr Maya Bleich-Cohen, Daniella Perry, and Dr Michal Ziv from the functional brain center, Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, for their contribution to the fMRI analysis. We also thank Dr Orna Zagoory-Sharon, Hila Azulay, and Yana Gavriolov from the Early Developmental Laboratory at Bar-Ilan. Research at Prof. Feldman’s lab was supported by the NARSAD independent investigator award, by the Israel Science Foundation (No. 1318/08), and by the Irving B. Harris Foundation.


  • attachment
  • emotion regulation
  • imaging
  • maternal behavior
  • motivation
  • synchrony


Dive into the research topics of 'Specifying the neurobiological basis of human attachment: Brain, hormones, and behavior in synchronous and intrusive mothers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this