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Brain Composition

Institutionalised Children may have a Different Brain Composition to those Brought up in a Loving Family Environment

A recent study has suggested that children who are put into care, or those who are neglected throughout their childhood, might develop a different brain composition to those who lead happy childhoods. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, led by Johanna Bick PhD and published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, looked at differences in the brains of Romanian children who had either been abandoned by their parents and or placed in institutions, with those children who were in foster care or who had been raised within their own biological family.

Limited access to language and cognitive stimulation affects brain growth

The research focused on the white matter of the brain, which consists mainly of nerves, as it plays an important role in connecting different brain regions together and maintaining the neural networks which are vital for communication. Previous research studies have shown that those children who were raised in some form of institutional environment often had extremely limited access to language and cognitive stimulation and experienced varying levels of social and emotional neglect, which had a negative impact on their development.

These changes may be able to be reversed

The research seemed to suggest that children who were not part of a family setting showed considerable changes in the white matter of their brains, compared to the children who were brought up and raised with their biological families. However, their findings seem to suggest that even if children have started life in institutions, if they were then placed in foster care or adopted into new families, these changes could be prevented or even reversed. Given the appropriate kind of stimulation and care, the study suggests that “removal from the conditions of neglect in early life and entry into a high-quality family environment can support more normative trajectories of white matter growth”.

While more studies are needed, the researchers believe that their findings will go a long way in helping the public health sector efforts to address issues of childhood neglect and also help them to find ways to enable vulnerable children to build a level of resilience.

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