Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Romanian Infants and You

Parents, pay attention. You could cause substantial developmental delays not to mention severe irreversible psychological and cognitive troubles for your child. In other words, brain damage. How? Well you'd have to abandon the child as an infant. Not just give the kid up to a doting adoptive family but really ruin the kid by leaving him or her in an institution, say an orphanage.

When researchers thought to study the brains of children left in Romanian orphanages they discovered diminished electrical activity in their brains. Years later those brains looked even worse:

As the children grew older, the researchers were able to use MRI to study the anatomy of their brains. And once again, the results were troubling. "We found a dramatic reduction in what's referred to as gray matter and in white matter," Nelson says. "In other words, their brains were actually physically smaller." via NPR

There aren't many orphanages around these days, not in the United States. In fact much of what we know about severely neglected children comes from a particular place in a particular time, Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and 1990s. Do you remember all the reports in the media about the Romanian orphans back then? I can still recall reading them and possibly even studying them.

The Romanian orphanages were particularly brutal places to live, the orphans subjected to extreme conditions.

“They were unusual kids,” said Jane Aronson, a physician and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, who has studied orphanages around the world. “They were so punished that they were depressed. And many of them even had psychotic features, autistic-like behavior and had severe failure to thrive and were tiny.”  via Washington Post

Of course this had little to do with you unless you either lived in an orphanage or adopted a child from an orphanage. Still, NPR couldn't help but plant the seed that somehow all children are in danger of stunted emotional and cognitive development if their parents don't show enough love and attention, or translated into 2014 terms, do as much as possible because anything less might create permanent damage. Like indiscriminate amygdala responses. So if you want your children's  amygdala to light up with activity when they see you, as opposed to not lighting up and treating you like a complete stranger, then keep up the work. If you don't care about your child's brain regions recognizing you, then feel free to go out to that movie, go find yourself and ignore them:

Parents do a lot more than make sure a child has food and shelter, researchers say. They play a critical role in brain development. via NPR

Oh come on now. It sounds like if at any moment a child could fall into the abyss of indiscriminate amygdala response.

By the way, there is some encouraging evidence that orphanages might not be so disastrous in other regions of the world:

Last month, Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large "institutions" (or orphanages) and half in "community" programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs. via The Wall Street Journal

But please don't take this in any way as encouragement for the views or future candidacy of Newt Gingrich.

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