The Lasting Effects of Neglect: Altered Brain Structure in Children

Fortunately, good foster care can help neglected children catch up developmentally, in part

  • Share
  • Read Later

Kids who are neglected, growing up without normal emotional and social interaction, have measurably different brain structure from other kids, according to a new study from researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The study compares kids raised in Romania’s infamous state-run orphanages with kids raised in normal Romanian family homes at the same time. MRI brain scans show that children raised in run-down institutions — typically with just one adult supervisor per 12 young kids — developed measurably lower grey matter volume and white matter volume in the cortex of the brain than children who grew up among their families.

However, children who spent their infancy in the orphanages but were then delivered to high-quality foster care as small children fared somewhat better than those left behind in the institutions. Those kids’ cortical white matter was no different from that among children who had always lived with families, the study shows. But the foster kids still had lower grey matter volume than normal.

The findings do show “the potential for developmental ‘catch-up’ in white matter growth, even following extreme environmental deprivation,” the study authors write. And that’s cause for optimism: it shows that some of the damage due to early childhood neglect can be undone.

White matter is important because it’s responsible for much of the connectivity between different regions of the brain; it’s the brain’s “information superhighway,” as one of the researchers puts it. But growth of grey matter — the part of the brain thought to control sensory perception and muscle control — tends to happen during concentrated periods of childhood, not all throughout childhood like white matter growth does. This may be why grey matter development seems harder to catch up on later, the authors write in their paper.

These latest findings about the long-term consequences of neglect are only the latest from a prolific research program known as the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP).

Under the authoritarian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, starting in the late 1960s, Romania enacted laws to encourage women to have at least five children. Contraception and abortion were outlawed, so that sick and unwanted babies were abandoned in large, understaffed institutions.

The results were horrific. Kids went without adequate beds, clothes, bathroom facilities or adult supervision. By the end of the Ceausescu regime, in the last days of 1989, there were more than 100,000 children living in the institutions.

BEIP began a full decade later, in 2000, to assess the consequences of early childhood deprivation and to test the efficacy of new foster-care programs. The Project is run out of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience.

For their research, the Boston scientists recruited 136 young children who were institutionalized in 2001 in Bucharest, Romania. They randomized half the kids to enter high-quality foster care and half to stay in institutional care — which had been improved substantially since the Ceausescu era, although staff-to-children ratios remained high.

Through the years since BEIP has started, its researchers have shown that neglected kids fall short on IQ and language skills; that they are more prone to behavior disorders and repetitive motions like rocking, flapping and banging their heads against things; and that they even show signs of accelerated cell aging.

The latest results about brain structure, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are based on screenings conducted when the kids in the study were aged 8 to 11. These new findings seem consistent with previous BEIP research on cognitive development among institutionalized kids.

“These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function,” lead researcher Margaret Sheridan told reporters.

And the importance of the findings remains grave. At least 8 million children worldwide currently live in institutions, according to UNICEF. Many of those kids continue to experience severe social or physical neglect.

Paresh Majumder
Paresh Majumder


thanks a lot+, pls share what can we do together for the BEST better

than present-best we imagine or want to establish, to encourage the

greater interest of Humankind, Environment, Triple Health amp;

next-generation- assuring their Physical-mental amp; Spiritual Health

Sound etc, thanks again for such discussion+++

Charmaine McDonald
Charmaine McDonald

The situation has reached a crisis point in this time of History.  Let us pray to the Almighty Creator who is aware of these situations and will guide us accordingly. We are living in the end times. God Have mercy


You don't need more foster care homes people... how about readjusting for the Title IV waiver that keeps kids in the home while offering services instead of government child trafficking. Just so everyone knows, 70% of children removed are removed due to neglect NOT abuse and the parameters are broad. People's children can get sold like cattle because their electricity gets turned off after job loss then the department steps in looking for any little character defect they can find. For this and many other reasons, there is a national protest scheduled Sept 28th from 10-3 and so far 20 states are scheduled to protest. By the time I am done, at least 40 of them will be on board. Yes, your state is one of them.

For more info on the protest, here is the Facebook link:


It didn't take a survey to show this. Live with a child adopted at an older age and you will see all these signs. My son was 5 1/2yrs coming home. He has lived with his disabilities for the past 13yrs.  His physiologist diagnosed this problem at the beginning telling me about the Grey matter not being stimulated and that it never developed like it should have. Unfortunately you cannot undo this. The Baroness was also responsible on putting pressure on Romania to close International Adoptions. So many thousand children still live there without families. Such a shame.


The Bucharest Early Intervention Project is an ongoing study

of the effects of family rearing on formerly institutionalized children,

developed by world-renowned institutions and financed by the MacArthur

Foundation. The lead researchers on the project are Charles A. Nelson,

professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School,

Charles H. Zeanah of Louisiana's Tulane University and

Nathan A. Fox of the University of Maryland.


Let's not forget that this is the same program that was

criticized by baroness Nicholson who characterized it as "very harmful experiences on

children". Back in June 2002, the baroness had accused the

University of Minnesota, the Tulane University, the University of Maryland and

the MacArthur Foundation of "testing

the Romanian orphans with electrodes", questioning these prestigious

organizations on both legal and moral grounds. At that time, the reporters

from Romanian national daily "Adevarul"  investigated

the case and published an article revealing the baroness' lies. Interesting

to note that her own countrymen (representatives of two U.K. universities

and scholars from the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health) were

defying Her Highness by participating in this study.

I think that was one of the most preposterous allegations her vivid imagination

ever conceived (equaled, maybe, only by the time when she said that "in many cases adoptions had given

oxygen and life blood to gangs linked to terrorist organizations"!!!).


Even children raised outside such tragic institutional environments may be deprived of stimulation and opportunities to learn language. Parents may easily become numb to the endless distractions that come with those beloved electronic devices. If they respond to them more frequently than to their youngster, both parent and child could be missing beneficial verbal exchanges. This study is important and informative, but we shouldn't forget that even a child raised in a perfect setting may not be getting enough stimulation if the parents don't separate from their gadgets once they come home from work.