Stories about: child abuse

Your brain on neglect: The evidence

D Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

If there wasn’t enough reason to be concerned about children suffering psychological and physical neglect—by their family, in foster homes, or from war or weather catastrophes—we now have three good lines of evidence that neglect harms a child’s developing brain.

But there’s also hope that some of this harm can be undone if caught in time.

Impaired IQ

The first evidence comes from cognitive studies done in Romania, where the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has transferred some children reared in its infamous orphanages, selected at random, into quality foster care homes. In 2007, Charles Nelson, PhD, and colleagues documented cognitive impairment in institutionalized children, but also showed improvement when children were placed in good foster homes, especially when they were placed before age 2.

Further evidence—brain imaging—comes from a more recent study by Nelson’s colleague Margaret Sheridan, PhD.

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Lesson from Romania: Neglect and deprivation are bad for children’s DNA

Romanian orphan-Angela Catlin_Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Angela Catlin/Wikimedia Commons

The infamous orphanages of Romania have become laboratories for studying the effects of profound child neglect. We already know from this sad situation that depriving children of normal emotional and social interaction leads to lower IQ scores, high rates of mental illness and stunted physical growth.

Now there’s evidence that early adversity goes to the core of children’s DNA – prematurely shortening their chromosome tips, known as telomeres, and hastening how quickly their cells “age.”

“Orphanages” is a misnomer, because these state-run institutions mostly house children who were abandoned by their families. They are a legacy of the 1960s, when Romania’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu taxed all families with fewer than five children, and then built child placement centers to house the children whose families couldn’t support them.

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