Loving Environment is Necessary for Kids

Physical and psychological neglect of children may have long lasting impact

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Physical neglect can leave more than physical signs of a poor childhood. Both physical and psychological neglect can literally change the brain - but the damage can be partly undone.

A recent study has found that children who have spent significant time in institutions had differences in their brains than children who had never lived in an institution - but children who left institutions for foster care had brains more like the children who lived at home.

"Giving your child love and attention matters!"

The study, led by Margaret Sheridan, PhD, and Charles Nelson, PhD, of Boston Children's Hospital's Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience, worked with the Bucharest Early Intervention Project in Romania to analyze the brains of children who had varying upbringings.

A total of 74 children were given a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, a type of medical scan that allows researchers to see patterns in the children's brains.

The researchers looked at the brain images of three groups of children. One group of 29 children had been raised in an institution, such as an orphanage.

Another 20 were children who had never lived in an institution. The last 25 had been randomly selected to leave an institution and be placed in high-quality foster care for 6 to 9 years.

The MRI brain scans revealed a smaller amount of gray matter in the brain's cortex and a smaller amount of white brain matter overall in institutionalized children compared to those who had lived at home.

Those who were placed in foster care, however, had scans revealing white matter amounts that looked the same as in the never-institutionalized children.

White matter is essential to forming connections in the brain. The researchers note that it grows more slowly over time whereas gray matter grows in spurts that peak at specific times in childhood.

This means gray matter development may be less able to adapt to new circumstances whereas white matter can better change and develop according to a new situation.

"We found that white matter, which forms the 'information superhighway' of the brain, shows some evidence of 'catch up,'" Dr. Sheridan said. "These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function."

Basically, although living in an institution is associated with an adverse effect on the gray matter in a child's brain, going into foster care can lessen the overall change that might occur in the brain otherwise.

"Our cognitive studies suggest that there may be a sensitive period spanning the first two years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development," Dr. Nelson said. "The younger a child is when placed in foster care, the better the outcome."

Dr. Nelson's past research has revealed other negative effects from the neglect that may come from living in institutions with low ratios of caregivers to students.

These effects included lower levels of cognitive, language and social function, higher rates of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and early aging in the cells.

The study was published July 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program of the Harvard School of Public Health, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Binder Family Foundation, the Help the Children of Romania, Inc. Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 22, 2012
Last Updated:
November 13, 2012