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Brain Development, Attachment and Impact on Psychic Vulnerability

Brain Development, Attachment and Impact on Psychic Vulnerability

Infant-caregiver interactions, seminal events in brain development and their possible relationship to later psychic vulnerability were explored in a recent continuing education seminar, "Understanding and Treating Trauma: Developmental and Neurobiological Approaches," at the University of California, Los Angeles. Presenters were Daniel Siegel, M.D., medical director of the infant and preschool service at UCLA and director of interdisciplinary studies, Children's Mental Health Alliance Foundation, and Allan N. Schore, Ph.D.

Schore, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA School of Medicine, has been compared to Einstein in his quest for a field theory, an overarching model that would explain all aspects of neuropsychobiological function and dysfunction.

In their presentation and subsequent interviews with Psychiatric Times, Schore and Siegel integrated the latest findings from neuroscience, development, attachment and psychoanalysis--fields that for too long have failed to merge their impressions into a coherent whole. As Schore explained, "The attachment researchers have studied the experiences necessary for social and emotional development, but they have looked only at behaviors and not at brain structures. The brain development people have looked at structures and not at behavioral consequences."

Attachment theory holds that secure attachments, and the attuned infant-caregiver interactions that produce them, are crucial to healthy psychological development. Schore takes attachment theory a step further by correlating the dialogue of caregiver-infant attunement with its accompanying neurobiological states, and explaining how these states may promote the wiring of healthy brain circuitry.

Infant researchers, among them psychiatrist Daniel Stern, M.D. (1977), have described this attunement dialogue. Researchers Beebe and Lachmann (1988) were the first to document its second-by-second nuances. Their photographed sequences reveal mother and infant face-to-face, their gazes interlocking, and their expressions modeling and mirroring one another. By tuning in to every subtle shift in the infant's states, the caregiver accentuates positive states of excitement, joy and pleasure, and minimizes distress. As Siegel describes it, "the infant feels felt." In this way, the mother serves as an affect regulator, an auxiliary cortex for the infant's still underdeveloped brain.

Siegel offered an example of an attuned interaction. "Imagine that an 11-month-old baby is excited about having just gotten up. She is cruising along the side of a table, her face filled with glee, and says "Aaaawwww!' The parent's attuned response would be "Wow!" reflecting the same crescendo and decrescendo, the same profile of energy."

Extrapolating from animal research, and from an ever-growing body of brain imaging studies on humans, Schore locates these attunement interactions in the infant's right orbitofrontal cortex and contends that they are essential to its synaptic development.

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