According to UNICEF, there are upwards of eight million children worldwide being raised under various types of institutional care (what we typically refer to as orphanages).(a)
Children raised in these settings have an increased incidence of developmental delay and deficits in cognition. Previous studies have found structural changes in the brain(b) that accompany a lifetime of institutional rearing and may be responsible for these cognitive delays and deficits. One hypothesis is that institutional settings provide a “deprived environment” with less stimulation than a child would otherwise be exposed to, leading to slower brain development.
In Romania, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project was initiated to test whether improving the environment of a child through foster care would improve brain structure and function.(c) In this particular study, the authors compared the size of various regions of the brain in children who either spent their whole lives in institutions, their whole lives outside of institutions, or switched from an institutional setting to foster care within the first three years of life.1 The researchers found that growing up in an institution was associated with decreased amounts of gray matter, and that being moved to foster care did not change this trend. Like gray matter, the amount of white matter was also decreased by a lifetime of institutional care; however, children who were switched to a foster care setting showed a trend towards increased white matter volume.(d)
The current study reinforces previous findings that institutional care is associated with brain deficits and finds evidence that at least some of these deficits (such as gray matter changes) may be established within the first three years of life. By identifying quantifiable physical changes in the brain that result from institutional rearing, the researchers have also found good measures of the effectiveness of potential interventions. While the results were not definitive, there was an indication that moving children to foster care may reduce or prevent some of the structural changes associated with a lifetime of institutional care, specifically those related to levels of white matter in the brain. If these results hold up, the next step will be figuring out how best to apply this knowledge in order to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children.
- Margaret A. Sheridan, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Katie A. McLaughlin, Charles A. Nelson III (2012) “Variation in neural development as a result of exposure to institutionalization early in childhood,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, 109 (32) : 12927-12932.