Children who experience severe deprivation early in life have smaller brains in adulthood, researchers have found.
The findings are based on scans of young adults who were adopted as children into UK families from Romania’s orphanages that rose under the regime of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Now experts say that despite the children having been adopted into loving, nurturing families in the early 1990s, the early neglect appears to have left its mark on their brain structures.
“I think the most striking finding is … that the effects on the brain have persisted,” said Prof Edmund Sonuga-Barke, a co-author of the study from King’s College London, who added that the results showed neuroplasticity had limits.
“The idea that everything is recoverable, no matter what your experience … isn’t necessarily true — even with the best care you can still see those signs of that earlier adversity,” he said.
The plight of the undernourished children, who had little social contact and received insufficient care, shocked the world when it came to light after the fall of the communist government in 1989. Ceausescu’s oppressive policies had banned abortion and contraception, while those without children were taxed. As a result, large numbers of children ended up in orphanages living in terrible conditions.
Previous studies involving the adoptees have shown they had marked cognitive difficulties as children — although these improved considerably into adulthood — while they also had high rates of conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, as adults, high levels of anxiety and depression.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sonuga-Barke and colleagues told how they carried out brain scans and other measures of 67 Romanian adoptees who had spent between three and 41 months living in severe deprivation as children. At the time of the scans the adoptees were between 23 and 28 years old.
The team also took brain scans from 21 adults of a similar age who had been born and adopted in the UK before they were six months old. The results revealed the Romanian adoptees had on average an 8.6 percent smaller brain overall than their UK peers. The team also found the size of the reduction was linked to the length of time spent in the Romanian orphanages: each additional month was linked to a 3cm3 lower total brain volume. “The more deprivation they had, the smaller their brains are,” said Sonuga-Barke.
The team’s analysis showed the smaller brain size explained the reduced IQ and, at least in part, the higher rates of ADHD found among the Romanian adoptees.
Prof Denis Mareschal, from Birbeck, University of London, said the study highlighted the importance of providing enriched environments in early infancy and childhood.
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Babies raised with insufficient stimulation due to a lack of human contact will often self-stimulate, such as hand flapping or rocking back and forth. Children who spent time in Romanian orphanages and who displayed these characteristics were often misdiagnosed as having mental disabilities.
According to attachment theory, an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development. The children in the Romanian orphanages were denied the opportunity to develop such a relationship.
(Lin Lee-kai, Taipei Times)
1. deprivation n. 剝奪；匱乏 (bo1 duo2; kui4 fa2)
2. orphanage n. 孤兒院 (gu1 er2 yuan4)
3. neglect n. 疏於照顧 (shu1 yu2 zhao4 gu4)
4. brain structure phr. 大腦結構 (da4 nao3 jie2 gou4)
5. adversity n. 逆境；苦難 (ni4 jing4; ku3 nan4)
6. undernourished adj. 營養不良的 (ying2 yang3 bu4 liang2 de5)
7. cognitive adj. 認知的 (ren4 zhi1 de5)
8. infancy n. 嬰兒期；幼年 (ying1 er2 qi2; you4 nian2)
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