Severe social and emotional deprivation in early life is written into our biochemical stress responses. That’s the latest learning from the long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), which began in 2000 and has been tracking severely neglected Romanian children in orphanages. Some of these children were randomly picked to be placed with carefully screened foster care families, and they’ve been compared with those left behind ever since.
While studies in rodents have linked early-life adversity with hyper-reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, the relationship has been harder to pin down in humans. BEIP’s study, involving almost 140 children around the age of 12, had children perform potentially stressful tasks, including delivering a speech before teachers, receiving social feedback from other children and playing a computer game that malfunctioned partway through.
Unlike the rodents, the institutionalized children had blunted responses in the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the “fight or flight” response, and in the HPA axis, which regulates production of the stress hormone cortisol. The researchers note that this dulled physiologic response has been linked to health problems, including chronic fatigue, pain syndrome and auto-immune conditions, as well as aggression and behavioral problems. …
The sad experience of abandoned children in Romanian orphanages continues to provide stark lessons about the effects of neglect and deprivation of social and emotional interactions. The long-running Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has been able to transfer some of these institutionalized children, selected at random, into quality foster care homes—and documented the benefits.
In a review article in the January 29 Lancet, BEIP investigator Charles A. Nelson, PhD, and medical student Anna Berens, MsC, both of Boston Children’s Hospital, make a strong case for global deinstitutionalization—as early in a child’s life as possible. Currently, it’s estimated that at least 8 million children worldwide are growing up in institutional settings.
The BEIP studies have documented a series of problems in institutionalized children, especially those who aren’t placed in foster care or are placed when they are older: …
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.
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.
“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. …