Psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children's brains, say researchers at Boston Children's Hospital (BCH). Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study also suggests that positive interventions can partially reverse these debilitating changes.
For the study, led by BCH's Margaret Sheridan, the researchers analyzed brain scans from Romanian children in the ongoing Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which involved transferring some children reared in orphanages into quality foster care homes. Their findings showed cognitive impairment in institutionalized children, but also showed improvements when children were placed in good foster homes.
The researchers note that growth of the brain's gray matter peaks during specific times in childhood, indicating sensitive periods when the environment can strongly influence brain development. White matter, which is necessary for forming connections in the brain, grows more slowly over time, possibly making it more malleable to foster care intervention.
"We found that white matter, which forms the information superhighway of the brain, shows some evidence of catch up," says Sheridan. "These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function."
Specifically, the children in institutional care had significantly reduced white matter volume, but for those who had been placed in foster care, white matter volume was indistinguishable from that of children who were never institutionalized. Additionally, the children with histories of any institutional rearing had significantly smaller gray matter volumes in the cortex of the brain.
"Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development," says Sheridan. "The implications are wide ranging, not just for institutionalized children but also for children exposed to abuse, abandonment, violence during war, extreme poverty and other adversities."
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Source: Children's Hospital Boston