When these monkeys reached adulthood, studies revealed significant alterations in the structure and chemistry of their brains. Research in Romanian orphanages focusing on human children reared without parental support also show significant increases in the frequency of later life psychological and social disabilities as well as medical illnesses and changes in the anatomy of the brain.
Perhaps the best-known research on this subject was with children raised in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and 1990s. In their compelling book “Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery,” Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland, Charles Nelson of Harvard and Charles Zeanah of Tulane document the devastating impact of institutions on infants who are deprived of their parents’ emotional support. In addition to profound behavioral and intellectual problems, the brains of these children showed diminished growth a decade later.
How stress turns cells from Jekyll to Hyde
How does stress do these things? We know that stress causes a biological reaction in the body, including increasing the quantity of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.” But it also increases the production of several inflammation-related proteins. In cases of infection, these inflammatory proteins are sentinels that help protect the body against infectious agents. But in the absence of infection, they can damage the host.
They do this by getting into cells and changing the packaging of DNA. Forced separation from one’s parents, especially in unfamiliar circumstances, is an extreme form of childhood stress that causes stress hormones to alter DNA packaging, transforming the behavior of the cell.
Some of how the DNA is repackaged is permanent, and the cells involved go through life in an altered state, making them hypersusceptible to a myriad of other stresses and medical problems.
Scientists know how dangerous toxic stress – severe, prolonged or repetitive adversity with a lack of the adequate adult support – is to children because they know how it damages and modifies the DNA in their cells. Now you know too. The longer the authorities fail to get these children reunited with their parents, the more responsible we are as a country for violating their DNA and causing a lifetime of psychological and physical disease.
Daniel R. Weinberger, Director of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and Professor, Departments of Psychiatry, Neurology, Neuroscience and The Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University