Neglect undoubtedly affects children but it turns out effects are more deeply ingrained, influencing even brain development, a new study has shown.
Published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the study was based off earlier work done by researchers from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP). Back in 2000, the BEIP intervened in Romania to provide high-quality foster care to orphans. Aside from simply being a humanitarian effort, the BEIP endeavored to analyze institutionalized child care.
According to BEIP research, those who remained in institutional care after they reached the age of 24 months exhibited major delays in cognitive development, among other problems.
The BEIP originally enlisted 136 children but the new study only involved 69 subjects. Out of this number, 26 were from the group assigned to stay in orphanages, 23 were from the group assigned to receive foster care and 20 were from the control group that remained in the local community.
Johanna Bick and colleagues used an MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging. They looked at the microstructures of 48 tracts of white matter in the children involved in the new study and compared their results from back when they were two and eight years old.
According to the results of the MRI scans, those who stayed in the orphanages showed less mature white matter development in four major sets. Most affected were tracts that included nerve circuits, which were involved in sensory processing, executive functions, maintaining attention, emotion and general cognitive performance.
Those who were sent to foster care exhibited more or less the same level of brain development as those who remained in the local community but findings were not very dramatic.
More importantly, researchers noted that examining results from children taken into foster care suggests that losses in white matter may be reversible. In the case of the Romanian orphans, moving them into a supportive environment improved brain development. The same might also work in other areas as a remedy against child neglect.
"Our findings have implications for public health and policy efforts designed to promote normative brain development among vulnerable children," added the researchers.
Bick seeks to next investigate whether or not improvements in white matter development actually translated into improved abilities, such as better emotional control, higher IQ and longer attention spans.
Some of the original BEIP participants will be turning 16 years old this year, and the researchers hope to gather new neurological data from them.
Alongside Bick as lead author, Charles Nelson, Ph.D., Tong Zhu, Ph.D., Charles Zeanah, M.D., Catherine Stamoulis, Ph.D. and Nathan Fox also participated in the study as co-authors.