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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Environmental and genetic influences on early attachment

Judit Gervai

Author Affiliations

Institute of Psychology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1394 Budapest, PO Box 398, Hungary

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2009, 3:25  doi:10.1186/1753-2000-3-25

Published: 4 September 2009

Abstract

Attachment theory predicts and subsequent empirical research has amply demonstrated that individual variations in patterns of early attachment behaviour are primarily influenced by differences in sensitive responsiveness of caregivers. However, meta-analyses have shown that parenting behaviour accounts for about one third of the variance in attachment security or disorganisation. The exclusively environmental explanation has been challenged by results demonstrating some, albeit inconclusive, evidence of the effect of infant temperament. In this paper, after reviewing briefly the well-demonstrated familial and wider environmental influences, the evidence is reviewed for genetic and gene-environment interaction effects on developing early attachment relationships. Studies investigating the interaction of genes of monoamine neurotransmission with parenting environment in the course of early relationship development suggest that children's differential susceptibility to the rearing environment depends partly on genetic differences. In addition to the overview of environmental and genetic contributions to infant attachment, and especially to disorganised attachment relevant to mental health issues, the few existing studies of gene-attachment interaction effects on development of childhood behavioural problems are also reviewed. A short account of the most important methodological problems to be overcome in molecular genetic studies of psychological and psychiatric phenotypes is also given. Finally, animal research focusing on brain-structural aspects related to early care and the new, conceptually important direction of studying environmental programming of early development through epigenetic modification of gene functioning is examined in brief.