Severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains, according to a new study by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development,” said Margaret Sheridan, Ph.D., of the Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“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.”
Researchers led by Sheridan and Charles Nelson, Ph.D., analyzed brain MRI scans from Romanian children in the ongoing Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), which has transferred some children reared in orphanages into foster care homes.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, add to earlier studies by Nelson and his colleagues showing cognitive impairment in institutionalized children, but also showing improvements when children are placed in good foster homes.
The researchers compared three groups of 8- to 11-year-old children: 29 who had been reared in an institution; 25 who were selected at random to leave the institution for a high-quality foster care home; and 20 typically developing children who were never in an institution.
Children with histories of any institutional rearing had significantly smaller gray matter volumes in the cortex of the brain than never-institutionalized children, even if they had been placed in foster care, the researchers noted.
Children who remained in institutional care had significantly reduced white matter volume as compared with those never institutionalized. For children who had been placed in foster care, white matter volume was indistinguishable from that of children who were never institutionalized.
The researchers note that growth of the brain’s gray matter peaks during specific times in childhood, indicating periods when 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, the researchers postulate.
“We found that white matter, which forms the ‘information superhighway’ of the brain, shows some evidence of ‘catch-up,'” said Sheridan. “These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function.”
“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,” Nelson added.
“The younger a child is when placed in foster care, the better the outcome.”
Source: Children’s Hospital Boston