Children who experience severe deprivation in their early years grow into adulthood with smaller brains, a new study has found.
Researchers at King’s College, London, followed adopted Romanian children, who spent time in what was described as “hellhole” orphanages under the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, a dictator.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), saw scientists scan the brains of these children as they grew into young adults in “loving” UK families.
Following that they were physically and psychologically deprived with little social contact as infants, the researchers found that they had brains 8.6 percent smaller compared to other adoptees.
While previous studies showed that they experienced mental health problems later in adulthood, the diminutive size of their brains compared to other children was “considerable.”
“Even with the best care you can still see those signs of that earlier adversity,” said Edmund Sonuga-Barke, a co-author, who added that the results showed neuroplasticity had limits.
“I think the most striking finding is that the effects on the brain have persisted. The idea that everything is recoverable, no matter what your experience isn’t necessarily true.
“It’s essential to recognise that these young people have nearly always received great care in loving adoptive families since they left the institutions.
“However, despite a lot of positive experiences and achievements there remain some deep-seated effects of deprivation on these young adults.”
In the new study, the researchers analysed the MRI brain scans of 67 Romanian orphans, now aged 23-28 years, and compared them to the scans from English adoptees aged 23-26 years who had not suffered such institutional deprivation.
According to the researchers, the longer they spent in the Romanian orphanages, the greater the brain reduction.
“We found structural differences between the two groups in three brain regions. These are linked to functions such as organisation, motivation, and integration of information & memory,” they added.
Although the study hinted uncertainty on what it was about deprivation that shrank brain size, experts warned that this condition could “drive impairments over this long period of time.”
In their words, the study highlights the fact that “environment and early adversity” could affect brain development — beyond proper nutrition and physical care.
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