For the past 15 years, researchers have been studying the effects of neglect on the developing brain through the study of Romanian orphans. The work has spawned dozens of papers, and even a book, detailing the profound consequences of early institutionalization on brain and behavior development. In one of the latest studies, researchers found that early neglect adversely affects the development of important brain oscillations in children but, they found, foster care can quickly lead to recovery.
The newest study, led by Catherine Stamoulis with senior researcher Charles Nelson, both of Boston’s Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, focused on neural oscillations, large populations of neurons that work in synchrony. The oscillations “represent a critical mechanism for communication and transmission of information across brain regions,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. During development, these oscillations evolve dynamically and are influenced by early experiences, both positive and negative. The goal, Nelson says, was to “use neural oscillations as a proxy for cortical circuit development and then to determine if children experiencing institutional care differed from those who did not.”
The study analyzed EEG recordings from three cohorts of the Bucharest Early Intervention project. The three groups were the result a randomized controlled trial of foster care for early institutional care. After screening more than 180 young infants for neurological or genetic disorders, the researchers recruited 136 whom they considered to be typically developing. Then, after an extensive baseline assessment of this full sample, half were randomly assigned to a high-quality foster care intervention and the other half to remain in care as usual; they also recruited a sample of never institutionalized children who lived with their families in Bucharest.
They analyzed the three group’s neural oscillation patterns from 42 to 96 months – 1–3 years after all children in the intervention arm of the study had been placed in foster care. Overall, they found differences between the never-institutionalized and institutionalized groups that may result in widespread deficits across multiple cognitive domains. The differences were a function of time spent in institutions, “suggesting that increased time spent in psychosocial neglect may have profound and widespread effects on brain activity,” the researchers wrote.
Although the general findings support the past decades of work showing that early neglect harms the brain of both people and nonhuman animals, the specific results of the study were still surprising to the scientists. “We were surprised at the severity of delay/disorder among the institutionalized children,” Nelson says. “We were surprised at how quickly we observed recovery – even if incomplete – among the children placed in foster care, and we were surprised at the number of domains where we observed sensitive periods, including EEG, attachment, IQ, and language.” Now studying their cohort at age 16, they were also surprised to see how long these effects have persisted.
In general, the researchers have found that placement into foster care before age 2 leads to better outcomes than placement after 2 years. Nelson says that this latest study underscores “that children who experience profound psychosocial deprivation early in life are at high risk for a variety of developmental outcomes and that the sooner such children are removed from such environments and placed into families, the better off they will be.”
His team is now further studying the cohorts at age 16 to see how the children are doing.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz