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Genetic, environmental and gender influences on attachment disorder behaviours

  • Helen Minnis (a1), Joanne Reekie (a2), David Young (a2), Tom O'Connor (a3), Angelica Ronald (a4), Alison Gray (a2) and Robert Plomin (a5)...
Abstract
Background

Despite current interest in attachment disorder, there is concern about its discrimination from other disorders and an unproven assumption of an environmental aetiology.

Aims

To test whether behaviours suggestive of attachment disorder are distinct from other childhood behavioural and emotional problems and are solely environmentally determined.

Method

In a community sample of 13472 twins, we carried out factor analysis of questionnaire items encompassing behaviours indicative of attachment disorder, conduct problems, hyperactivity and emotional difficulties. We used behavioural genetic model-fitting analysis to explore the contribution of genes and environment.

Results

Factor analysis showed clear discrimination between behaviours suggestive of attachment disorder, conduct problems, hyperactivity and emotional problems. Behavioural genetics analysis suggested a strong genetic influence to attachment disorder behaviour, with males showing higher heritability.

Conclusions

Behaviours suggestive of attachment disorder can be differentiated from common childhood emotional and behavioural problems and appear to be strongly genetically influenced, particularly in boys.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
Dr Helen Minnis, Section of Psychological Medicine, Division of Community Based Sciences, Caledonia House, Yorkhill Hospital, Glasgow G3 8SJ, UK. Tel: +44 (0)141 201 9239; fax: +44 (0)141 201 0620; email: h.minnis@clinmed.gla.ac.uk
Footnotes
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Declaration of interest

None.

Footnotes
References
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Genetic, environmental and gender influences on attachment disorder behaviours

  • Helen Minnis (a1), Joanne Reekie (a2), David Young (a2), Tom O'Connor (a3), Angelica Ronald (a4), Alison Gray (a2) and Robert Plomin (a5)...
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eLetters

Re: Attachment Disorders: an Evolutionary Perspective

Helen Minnis, Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
24 August 2007

Dear Editor,

We were interested to read the fascinating response to our paper "Genetic, environmental and gender influences on attachment disorder behaviours" by O'Connell (please insert O’Connell reference here). Unfortunately there was not space within our paper to do justice to a discussion of RAD from an evolutionary point of view although we agree that this is an important theoretical perspective. HM first became interested in Reactive Attachment Disorder when working as an orphanage doctor in Guatemala. The great majority of the children there displayed symptoms of the Disinhibited form of RAD and it seemed clear that these behaviours were adaptive in a setting where primary attachment figures were lacking. We have touched on the maintenance of these behaviours froman evolutionary perspective in our 2006 paper "Reactive Attachment Disorder - a theoretical model beyond attachment" (Minnis et al. 2006).

O'Connell also points out that we did not engage in a discussion of attachment theory, or the work of John Bowlby (Bowlby 1973). We do not wish to underestimate the crucial role of Bowlby's work in advancing our understanding of childhood development, however we were unable to do justice to the complex interplay between attachment patterns and Reactive Attachment Disorder within our word limit. This important topic is the focus of our aforementioned 2006 paper (Minnis et al. 2006). In short, children can be securely attached while suffering from RAD and children suffering from RAD have difficulties in various domains of early development, not simply the domain of attachment (Green & Goldwyn 2002; Richters & Volkmar 1994). Reactive Attachment Disorder researchis in its infancy and is a field ripe for exploration on a number of fronts.

References

Bowlby, J. 1973, Attachment, Separation and Loss Routledge, London.

Green J. & Goldwyn. 2002, "Annotation: Attachment disorganisationand psychopathology: new findings in attachment research and their potential implications for developmental psychopathology in childhood", Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 43, no. 7, pp. 835-846.

Minnis, H., Marwick, H., Arthur, J., & McLaughlin, A. 2006, "Reactive attachment disorder - a theoretical model beyond attachment", European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 15, pp. 336-342.

O'Connell please insert reference here

Richters, M. M. & Volkmar, F. R. 1994, "Reactive Attachment Disorder in infancy or early childhood", The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 328-332.
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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Attachment Disorders: an Evolutionary Perspective

Henry P O'Connell, Senior Registrar in Psychiatry
01 August 2007

Dear Editor,

In a large twin study examining attachment disorder behaviours, Minnis et al (2007) have demonstrated that such behaviours can be differentiated from other common childhood emotional and behavioural disorders and appear to be strongly genetically influenced, particularly in boys. The authors also point out that, even in a population of childrenthat was probably healthier than the general population, behaviours suggestive of attachment disorder were identified.The title of this paper, ‘Genetic, environmental and gender influences on attachment disorder behaviours’, suggests a comprehensive approach to aetiology, and conventional aetiological factors are indeed addressed. However, the paper would have benefited further from the inclusion of an evolutionary perspective on attachment disorder behaviours. Evolutionary or Darwinian psychiatry examines, among other things, the potential for adaptive benefits to pre-programmed psychobiological mechanisms (e.g. depressive symptoms or attachment disorders) that are sometimes incorrectly viewed as being simply abnormal or pathological. Interested readers are directed to a concise editorial on the topic published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000 (Abed, 2000).It was surprising to see that there was not at least one reference made inthe introduction or concluding sections of the paper by Minnis et al to Bowlby’s seminal work (Bowlby, 1958) in the area of attachment. Bowlby’s perspective on attachment was an evolutionary one, in that he viewed the associated behaviours as representing evolved and adaptive psychobiological mechanisms, protecting the child from predators and the many other dangers prevalent in our ancestral environment. This ‘adaptionist’ perspective could have been explored by the authors when considering why attachment disorder behaviours occurred atall in this healthy non-clinical sample.Chisholm (1996) and Belsky (1997) proposed in more recent years an integration of life-history theory (Levins, 1968) and attachment theory. Chisholm argued that, in life history theory, life cycles constitute evolved adaptive strategies. Furthermore, individuals must prioritise the allocation of their time and resources to different components of reproductive fitness, e.g. growth, mating or parenting. Therefore, the sexual strategy employed by parents (e.g. low investment in large numbers of offspring or vice versa) is an integral component of the child’s early environment.Belsky (1997) argued that secure attachment in children functioned to promote a strategy of high-investment parenting and avoidant attachment (child showing indifference to parent) as representing an adaptation to parental unwillingness to invest (e.g. when the parent invests instead in a short-term mating strategy with relatively little investment in individual offspring).The anxious/ambivalent style of attachment evolved in response to parentalinability (e.g. through illness) to invest, and fostered a ‘helpers at thenest style’ in the children, whereby children would co-operate in rearing siblings. For example, Turke (1988) demonstrated (independent of attachment disorders) that women from the Micronesian atoll of Ifaluk werelikely to have significantly larger families when their first-born was female: an anxious/ambivalent attachment style may further accentuate suchbehaviour in female children, perhaps explaining in part the gender differences in attachment disorders raised in the paper by Minnis et al.These are merely a few examples of the insights that evolutionary psychiatry can provide. In the total absence of such an evolutionary perspective, one is reminded of Abed’s (2000) cautionary comments: ‘In recent years psychiatry has attempted to circumvent such problems by engaging in an atheoretical research enterprise involving gathering massesof data and calculating sophisticated associations. However, such an endeavour of itself cannot generate a scientific discipline, for science is a method of discovering the world and not simply a body of facts’.

References

Abed RT. Psychiatry and Darwinism. Time to reconsider? Br J Psychiatry (2000) 177:1-3.

Belsky J. (1997). Attachment, mating and parenting: An evolutionary interpretation. Human Nature, 8, 361-381.

Bowlby J. (1958) The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 350-373.

Chisholm JS (1996). The evolutionary ecology of attachment organization. Human Nature, 7, 1-38.

Levins R. (1968). Evolution in changing environments. Princeton: University Press.

Minnis H, Reekie J, Young D, O’Connor T, Ronald A, Gray A, Plomin R. Genetic, environmental and gender influences on attachment disorder behaviours.

Turke PW. (1988). ‘Helpers at the nest: childcare networks on Ifaluk’, in: L. Betzig, M Borgerhoff-Mulder, and PW Turke (eds) Human Reproductive Behaviour: a Darwinian Perspective, pp. 173-88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Conflict of interest: None Declared

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