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Brainstem Activity Predicts Attachment-Related Anxiety

Author(s): Yoshiaki Kikuchi, Yohan Matsutani, Kumiko Mori, Kenji Hanada, Yuko Shirakawa, Maki Shirato, Madoka Noriuchi


Objective: Attachment security serves as a critical resource for individuals to preserve relationship quality. However, insecure attachment interrupts it and seriously influences mental/physical health. Therefore, it is important to clarify the correlations between brain activity and attachment-related anxiety and its avoidance.

Methods: We investigated these correlations in healthy male subjects by using functionalmagnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were viewing their partner.

Results: The brain regions that were significantly activated for the partner vs. unknown females were the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), pontine raphe nucleus (PRN), and locus coeruleus (LC) in a whole-brain analysis. A region of interest (ROI) analysis showed that the DRN, periaqueductal grey (PAG), hypothalamus, anterior insula (AIC), substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA), ACC, PCC and intraparietal sulcus (IPS) were significantly activated. Furthermore, activity in the DRN, SN/VTA, and LC negatively correlated with attachment-related anxiety.

Conclusions: There were individual differences in the correlations between the brainstem activity and attachment-related anxiety, although brain activity in our subjects was more similar to that observed in long-term intense romantic love and maternal love compared to that in early-stage romantic love. These brainstem regions are the primary sites of neurotransmitters which modulate basic functions of survival, and also play key roles for maintenance of secure relationships with a partner. This finding might be useful to assessment of the risk of  breakdowns by factors of the attachment style.

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