‘Neglect in childhood causes children to have smaller brains’

Early childhood deprivation through neglect and adversity is associated with alterations in the brain structure as adults, despite environmental enrichment in intervening years, according to an article published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) on 7.1.2020.

The research, carried out by King’s College London, examined the MRI data of 67 young adults aged 23-28 years who spent between 3–41 months in Romanian orphanages prior to being adopted by UK families. According to Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, the aim of the research was to addresses one of the most fundamental questions in developmental psychology and psychiatry – how does early experience shape individual development?

The MRI data collected from individuals, who were exposed to severe deprivation in early childhood in the Romanian orphanages of the Ceaușescu era but were then subsequently adopted by UK families, was compared with 21 non-deprived UK adoptees. The research showed that Romanian adoptees had substantially smaller total brain volumes than non-deprived adoptees (8.6% reduction). Researchers concluded that an early life of neglect, deprivation and adversity leads to children growing up with smaller brains, and higher rates of neurodevelopmental and mental disorders in adulthood. In other words the neglected children continued to suffer in adulthood.

According to the research, the longer the time the Romanian adoptees spent in the institutions, the smaller the total brain volume, with each additional month of deprivation associated with a 0.27% reduction in total brain volume. Deprivation related changes in brain volume were associated with lower IQ and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Other possible factors that could have influenced the results were investigated, but found the young adults were unaffected by level of nutrition, physical growth and genetic predisposition for smaller brains.

First author, Dr Nuria Mackes, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience said: “Previous research on the English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) study has suggested that the emergence and persistence of low IQ and a high level of ADHD symptoms involves structural changes in the brain but, until now, we have not been able to provide direct evidence of this. Showing these very profound effects of early deprivation on brain size and then showing that this difference is associated with low IQ and greater ADHD symptoms provides some of the most compelling evidence of the neuro-biological basis of these problems following deprivation.”

Professor Sonuga-Barke said: “This study is important because it highlights for the first time, in a compelling way, the power of the early environment and early adversity to shape brain development. It drives impairments over this long period of time – over 20 years – even when children have received top-notch care in loving adoptive families.”