Several decades ago, both contraception and abortion were banned in Romania, leading to the institutionalization of hundreds of thousands of abandoned children. Some of the institutions provided adequate food and shelter, but almost none of them were able to provide the human interactions that are so vital to healthy brain development. Is is known that neglect alters the brain, but the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (EAIP) conducted this latest study in order to identify which areas of the brain are most impacted.
The researchers compared 2 year olds who had lived with a family for their entire lives, had lived in an institution up until the start of the study when they were placed in foster care, and those who had and continued to be institutionalized. The diffusion tensor images of these childrens’ brains from ages 2 and 8 were compared between conditions, revealing that institutionalized children had significantly less white matter development than children raised in a household, with the foster care group falling somewhere in the middle at age 8.
More specifically, they found breakdown in the structural integrity of the corpus callosum (involved in communication between both sides of the brain), parts of the limbic circuitry (involved in emotion and fight-or-flight response), and many other areas of the white matter of the brain associated with functions like attention, executive function, and sensory processing. This research provides evidence for which aspects of the brain are affected in institutionalized, neglected children, as well as providing an indication that even after 2 years old, some white matter damage can be remedied if living conditions improve. These results indicate that the first two years do not define the trajectory of white matter development and that toddlers who have been institutionalized or otherwise neglected are byno means lost causes and that they can still experience healthy neuroplasticity in the right environment.
Bick, J., Zhu, T., Stamoulis, C., Fox, N. A., Zeanah C., Nelson, C. A., Effect of early institutionalization on long-term white matter development: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Pediatrics, 2015.