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But weren’t their brains “pretty much normal”?

Brains develop; they go through a process of change and refinement that is dependent on interactions with the environment. As ought to be obvious, then, brains are going to be exquisitely sensitive to their inputs. This state suggests all kinds of interesting experiments we’d like to perform on human fetuses and infants — except that good scientists also pay heed to ethical constraints. Other social institutions may lack such inhibitions, though, and go out and do the experiments for us: witness the case of Romanian orphanages.

Romania has had orphanages for centuries. But its orphan crisis began in 1965, when the communist Nicolae Ceaușescu took over as the country’s leader. Over the course of his 24-year rule, Ceaușescu deliberately cultivated the orphan population in hopes of creating loyalty to — and dependency on — the state. In 1966, he made abortion illegal for the vast majority of women. He later imposed taxes on families with fewer than five children and even sent out medically trained government agents — ‘The Menstrual Police’ — to examine women who weren’t producing their quota. But Ceaușescu’s draconian economic policies meant that most families were too poor to support multiple children. So, without other options, thousands of parents left their babies in government-run orphanages.

By Christmas day in 1989, when revolutionaries executed Ceaușescu and his wife by firing squad, an estimated 170,000 children were living in more than 700 state orphanages. As the regime crumbled, journalists and humanitarians swept in. In most institutions, children were getting adequate food, hygiene and medical care, but had woefully few interactions with adults, leading to severe behavioural and emotional problems. A handful of orphanages were utterly abhorrent, depriving children of their basic needs. Soon photos of dirty, handicapped orphans lying in their own excrement were showing up in newspapers across the world.

Efforts to correct this situation were hampered by the mythology of the government that the deplorable state of these childrens was not caused by institutionalization, but that the ill, weak, mentally retarded children were placed there because of their prior condition. This wasn’t just an opportunity to explore the effects of early socialization on children’s development, but also an ethical obligation to determine the causes of their problems.

This is how the Bucharest Early Intervention Project was launched, a study that tries to examine how social neglect affects children placed in Romanian state orphanages. The answers were obvious, despite state denials: we’ve known for years, at least since the work on Harlow’s monkeys, that the primate brain needs extensive interaction with responsive and caring conspecifics to mature properly. And that’s what they’re finding: these poor desperate children have been damaged and are suffering thanks to long-term policies of social impoverishment.

What they found was unsurprising: children’s brains can be harmed by growing up in the harrowing setting of a state orphanage (read the full story to get the picture of just how awful these particular orphanages could be):

In the Hilton Hotel in Bucharest, with representatives from several Romanian ministries and the US ambassador in attendance, the researchers reported that, as expected, the 136 children who started in institutions tended to have diminished growth and intellectual ability compared with controls who had never lived outside of a family. But there was a surprising silver lining. Children who had been placed in foster care before the age of two years showed significant gains in IQ, motor skills, and psychological development compared with those who stayed in the orphanages.

Oh, and were their brains “pretty much normal”? Nope. You have to be very careful interpreting MRI data, but they got some dismaying results.

As the children got older, the researchers gave them brain scans (renting out time with a private clinic’s MRI machine, one of only a handful in the country). These scans showed that, at around the age of eight, the children who grew up in institutions have less white matter, the tissue that links up different brain regions, compared with those in foster care. The researchers looked at the children’s genomes, too, and found that those who lived the longest in orphanages tend to have the shortest telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes that are related to lifespan.

It’s a depressing story, not just because the fate of these children is so sad, but because the availability of strong scientific data that explains what needs to be done to correct the problem seems to be affecting government social policy very, very slowly or not at all.

Comments

  1. davidwhitlock says

    There was also a recent report out on exposure to cocaine in utero. What the data showed was that as bad as exposure to cocaine in utero was, exposure to poverty in childhood was worse.

    We know how to fix exposure to poverty.

  2. yazikus says

    I remember hearing a few years ago an anecdote about the Romanian orphanages. Apparently children from one specific orphanage were doing far better than the other children. It was discovered that the night janitor had been holding the babies and talking to them when she worked.
    -
    I don’t know if that story is true. Google may let me know, but it does seem like it would have had a positive effect.

  3. pedron says

    @yazikus

    Grizzled and cynical as I am, not much makes me tear up. Stories like that, however…

  4. octopod says

    White matter, OK, but telomeres? A socially-deprived childhood shortened their telomeres? Holy fucking balls.

  5. Esteleth, statistically significant to p ≤ 0.001 says

    This study doesn’t go into that, but I’d be interested (rather like how I’d be interested in watching a slo-mo video of a plane crash) in a study of the epigenetic markers of the children of the Romanian orphanage children, as compared to a cohort of children born to parents who did not spend time in such a deprived environment.

  6. vaiyt says

    Over the course of his 24-year rule, Ceaușescu deliberately cultivated the orphan population in hopes of creating loyalty to — and dependency on — the state. In 1966, he made abortion illegal for the vast majority of women. He later imposed taxes on families with fewer than five children and even sent out medically trained government agents — ‘The Menstrual Police’ — to examine women who weren’t producing their quota.

    Where are the fundamentalists to scream “Communism!” when government tries to force women to breed?

  7. Jacob Schmidt says

    Where are the fundamentalists to scream “Communism!” when government tries to force women to breed?

    That’s different. The fundies want those babies loyal to Jesus.

  8. magistramarla says

    There’s a big argument going on in the city where I live because our Democrat mayor is trying to implement the President’s big push for providing K-4 for all children. He actually managed to get his initiative voted in and it will be phased in starting this year.
    The conservatives in the city are of course complaining about “wasting” their taxpayer money and keep citing some study that says that any gains made by attending pre-school are lost by third grade. I’m suspicious that the “study” might be a right-wing think tank type of thing.
    Does anyone here know anything about it?
    My daughter the neurologist feels that any boost that is given to the developing brain should remain, which this post of PZ’s would seem to confirm. My other daughter the pre-school teacher vociferously disagrees with what the conservatives are saying.
    As a retired educator myself, everything that I’ve ever learned about education has stated that those first few years of life were the most important for establishing the child’s learning ability, and the more sensory input, the better.

  9. terrencekaye says

    “Draconian economic policies?” Whew. Good thing we don’t have THOSE in the good ole’ USA. But then, I’m fortunate. I live in a state that only has 15% unemployment and a recent 67% increase in the income tax rate. Did I mention the highest gas prices in the country, due to those greedy profiteering taxing authorities?

  10. Azuma Hazuki says

    Things like this are happening in the US too. We’re facing key nutrient shortages in hospitals, diapers are prohibtively expensive for many poor mothers, and the continued gutting of social programs is producing a lost generation among the post-2000 baby set. It hasn’t gotten this bad YET, but it will if things continue at this rate.

    I can’t imagine raising a child in this world…

  11. kimberlyherbert says

    The problem with many pre-k programs is that they are hot houses, pushing developmentally inappropriate academic programs. So they come into 2nd grade reading on a DRA 20 or 24 – and are academically advanced, but they HATE reading, HATE Math – and HATE school.

    Then there is another group that came from a developmentally appropriate background. They played when they were 2 – 5 yo instead of grinding out worksheets. They developed phonetic awareness by singing songs and saying nursery rhymes, they developed number sense by playing games – counting skipping rope, rolling dice in a board game, keeping score. They developed fine motor skills and gross motor skills doing things, not hunched over a worksheet copying their name. They might come in first grade a couple of levels down on the DRA, they might be a 16 or 18 coming into 2nd. But something clicks about 1/2 way through 2nd grade and they start devouring books increasing their reading level – and their enjoyment. Especially the boys (You see a similar growth spurt in 1st grade with the girls.) They don’t just catch up to those who went to academic preschools – they soar past them.

  12. rinn says

    The note about telomeres sounds peculiar. Is there any explanation how could the telomeres be shortened as a result of mistreatment in orphanages?

  13. Tethys says

    Is there any explanation how could the telomeres be shortened as a result of mistreatment in orphanages?

    Yes, it is due to chronic stress.

    Hormonal actions in early life, and to a much lesser extent later, can be organizational, i.e., can have effects that last for long periods of time, often for the entire life of the individual. Hormones of the stress system and sex steroids have such effects, which influence the behavior and certain physiologic functions of individuals for life. Exposure of the developing brain to severe and/or prolonged stress may result in hyperactivity/hyperreactivity of the stress system, with resultant amygdala hyperfunction (fear reaction), decreased activity of the hippocampus (defective glucocorticoid-negative feedback, cognition), and the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic system (dysthymia, novelty-seeking, addictive behaviors), hyperactivation of the HPA axis (hypercortisolism), suppression of reproductive, growth, thyroid and immune functions, and changes in pain perception.

    source: Pediatric stress: hormonal mediators and human development.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12649570

  14. James Fehlinger says

    There was also this famous American case: [wikipedia: Genie (feral child)] which I first heard about in the April 13 and April 20, 1992 issues of _The New Yorker_ (“A Silent Childhood” by Russ Rymer; the author also subsequently published a book entitled _Genie: A Scientific Tragedy_).

    The _Nova_ TV episode “Genie (Secret of the Wild Child)” is available on YouTube: [watch?v=hmdycJQi4QA]

    > Efforts to correct this situation were hampered
    > by the mythology of the government that the
    > deplorable state of these childrens was not
    > caused by institutionalization, but that the
    > ill, weak, mentally retarded children were
    > placed there because of their prior condition.

    One interesting thing about the “Genie” case was the lack of ultimate agreement on whether the girl was retarded from birth or whether her retardation was the result of her horrendous childhood social deprivation. The guy who did the sleep study on her insisted that the EEG “spindles” were indications of _a priori_ brain damage.

    Nature vs. nurture — plus ça change. . .

  15. David Marjanović says

    Wow. Other supervillains try to breed supersoldiers or ideological drones by special care, special indoctrination, and the like; Ceaușescu, and I didn’t know that, evidently tried to do the same by lack of care, lack of education, lack of pretty much everything.

    Tragedy, farce – and a farce isn’t necessarily funny.

    The researchers looked at the children’s genomes, too, and found that those who lived the longest in orphanages tend to have the shortest telomeres

    Seriously?

    Jesus Haploid Christ!

    I’d be interested (rather like how I’d be interested in watching a slo-mo video of a plane crash)

    *steal*

    I can’t imagine raising a child in this world…

    The US isn’t the world. <Homer Simpson>So far!</Homer Simpson>

    Yes, it is due to chronic stress.

    But telomerase is only active in the zygote anyway, right? That would mean chronic stress actively shortens telomeres. ~:-|