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Association between childhood maltreatment and adult emotional dysregulation in a low-income, urban, African American sample: Moderation by oxytocin receptor gene

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 April 2011

Bekh Bradley*
Atlanta VA Medical Center Emory University
Drew Westen
Emory University
Kristina B. Mercer
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Elisabeth B. Binder
Emory University
Tanja Jovanovic
Emory University
Daniel Crain
Emory University
Aliza Wingo
Atlanta VA Medical Center Emory University
Christine Heim
Emory University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Bekh Bradley, Atlanta VA Medical Center, MHSL, Mail Stop 116, 1670 Clairmont Road, Decatur, GA 30033; E-mail:


The ability to effectively regulate emotions and a secure attachment style are critical for maintaining mental health across the life span. The experience of childhood maltreatment interferes with normal development of emotional regulation and dramatically increases risk for a wide range of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. The central nervous system oxytocin systems are critically involved in mediating social attachment and buffering psychophysiological responses to stress. We therefore investigated the impact of childhood maltreatment and an oxytocin receptor (OXTR) single nucleotide polymorphism (rs53576) and their interaction on emotional dysregulation and attachment style in adulthood in a sample of low-income, African American men and women recruited from primary care clinics of an urban, public hospital. Consistent with prior research, we found that the severity of childhood maltreatment was associated with increased levels of emotional dysregulation in adulthood. Childhood maltreatment was also positively associated with ratings of disorganized/unresolved adult attachment style and negatively associated with ratings of secure adult attachment style. There was no direct association between rs53576 and emotional dysregulation or ratings of adult attachment style. However, there were significant interactions between rs53576 and childhood maltreatment in predicting level of adult emotional dysregulation and attachment style. Specifically, G/G genotype carriers were at risk for increased emotional dysregulation when exposed to three or more categories of childhood abuse. In addition, G/G genotype carriers exhibited enhanced disorganized adult attachment style when exposed to severe childhood abuse compared to A/A and A/G carriers. Our findings suggest that A allele carriers of OXTR rs53576 are resilient against the effects of severe childhood adversity, by protection against emotional dysregulation and disorganized attachment.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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