Stories about: child abuse

Mothers’ life experiences may affect their newborns’ telomeres — especially boys’

mother and newborn with telomeres

A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that mothers’ experiences affect their babies’ chromosomes. For the first time, it also shows a gender difference — with male babies more susceptible to maternal influence. And it even implicates experiences dating back to the mother’s own childhood.

The study, led by psychologist Michelle Bosquet Enlow, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital, may help explain why stress can have intergenerational effects within a family. It was published last month in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The researchers enrolled 151 socioeconomically diverse mothers and their infants, all born at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The mothers completed in-depth interviews during pregnancy. Cord blood was collected from the newborns so that their chromosomes could be examined — and in particular, the little caps at their tips known as telomeres.

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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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