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Genetic and environmental influence on attachment disorganization


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

Gottfried Spangler, Institute of Psychology, University of Erlangen, Bismarckstr. 6, D-91054 Erlangen, Germany; Tel: ++49 9131 852 4744; Email:


Background:  Empirical studies demonstrate that maternal sensitivity is associated with attachment security in infancy, while maternal frightening/frightened behavior is related to attachment disorganization. However, attachment disorganization is also predicted by individual dispositions in infancy. Indeed, recent studies indicate a link between attachment disorganization and DRD4 gene polymorphisms, thus suggesting a genetic vulnerability for attachment disorganization. The aims of our study were twofold, to test a) a possible direct link between molecular genetic variations and attachment disorganization, and b) a possible gene–environment interaction with a moderating effect of early maternal caregiving.

Methods:  Attachment security and disorganization, as well as quality of maternal behavior were assessed in the infants of the Regensburg Longitudinal Study IV (N = 106) at the age of 12 months. DNA samples were collected in order to assess the exon III repeat polymorphism in the coding region and the −521 C/T single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in the regulatory region of the DRD4 gene and a repeat polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene.

Results:  Significant associations were found between attachment disorganization and the short polymorphism of the serotonin transporter gene. Also, a gene–environment interaction indicated that this genetic association was only valid for infants of mothers exhibiting low responsiveness. No other significant genetic associations with attachment disorganization were apparent.

Conclusions:  The study suggests a gene–environment interaction whereby biological determinants of attachment disorganization are moderated by social experiences. Different pathways of the development of attachment disorganization are discussed based on a bio-behavioral model of development.