Severe Deprivation During Childhood Linked To A Smaller Brain

An MRI scan of a human brain. Chalie Chulapornsiri/Shutterstock

Rachel Baxter 07 Jan 2020, 17:48

Before the Romanian Revolution of 1989, thousands of children faced squalor, abuse, and total neglect in orphanages under the communist rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. When the conditions these children lived in were revealed to the rest of the world, they were met with shock and horror, and many were adopted by residents of other European nations. Their traumatic start to life left many Romanian adoptees with mental and physical disabilities, and, according to a new study, it may even have impacted the size of their brains.

Under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, both contraception and abortion were forbidden in Romania with the intention of boosting the economy by boosting the population. Many people did not have the means to care for their babies and placed them in orphanages, sometimes with the intention of going back for them when they were older. Funding cuts and a lack of trained staff meant many children suffered starvation, poor hygiene, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse.

To determine what effects such deprivation and abuse might have on a person later in life, a long-running investigation called the English and Romanian Adoptee project is underway. It aims to compare Romanian orphans adopted by English families to English orphans adopted within England. As part of this research, a team led by King’s College London (KCL) recently imaged the brains of 67 young adults between the ages of 23 and 28 who had suffered neglect at the hands of communist-era Romanian orphanages and compared them to brain scans of 21 English adoptees aged between 23 and 26 who never experienced such deprivation.

“The English and Romanian Adoptees study addresses one of the most fundamental questions in developmental psychology and psychiatry – how does early experience shape individual development?” said KCL’s Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke in a statement.

Reporting their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team discovered that the Romanian adoptees had brains that were roughly 8.6 percent smaller than those of their English counterparts. What’s more, every month of deprivation experienced was linked to an extra 0.27 percent reduction in brain volume. The researchers note that the changes in brain size were linked to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a lower IQ, implying that deprivation might lead to structural changes in the brain that in turn cause mental health issues and cognitive problems.

The team also noticed differences in specific parts of the brain. For example, the Romanian adoptees had smaller right inferior frontal gyri, a part of the brain associated with goal-directed behavior. Meanwhile, they had a larger than expected right inferior temporal lobe, which appeared to have a protective effect; when the area was larger, adoptees had fewer symptoms of ADHD. This area may therefore grow larger in response to deprivation in an attempt to compensate for its negative effects.

The findings of the study do not conclusively show that deprivation causes lower brain volume; however, the team note that they did account for other possible contributors like nutrition and genetic predisposition. 

“Previous research on the English and Romanian Adoptees 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,” said first author Dr Nuria Mackes of KCL. “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 neurobiological basis of these problems following deprivation."

Local differences in brain structure associated with deprivation. King's College London

 

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