King’s College London researchers found that the brains young adult Romanian adoptees who were institutionalized as children were around 8.6% smaller then those of English adoptees without this form of deprivation.
Research shows that the brain volume of Romanian adoptees decreases with increasing time spent in institutions. Each additional month of deprivation is associated with a 0.27 percent reduction in total brain volumes. Deprivation-related brain volume changes were associated with lower intelligence and more symptoms related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS), the study analysed MRI brain scanning of 67 young adults between 23 and 28 years old who were exposed to extreme deprivation in Romanian institutional settings under the Communist regime. These individuals were later adopted into caring families in the UK. These brain scans were compared with those of 21 English adoptees, aged 23-26 years, who had not been subject to this institutional deprivation.
As part of the Medical Research Council’s funded English and Romanian Adoptees brain imaging study (ERABIS), MRI scans at the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences in King’s College London were done. This is part of a larger ERA project which collected information over time from English- and Romanian adoptees including measures of cognitive performance as well as mental health.
This is the first study to examine the effects of severe early childhood neglect on the brain structure of young adults.
An analysis of statistical data showed that in this group of young Romanian adults the brain volume changes that were associated with deprivation were also associated to lower IQ and more ADHD symptoms. This suggests that brain structure may play a role in mediating between the experience deprivation and mental health and cognitive performance.
The research looked into other factors that might have influenced the results. However, the results were not affected based on nutrition, physical growth, and genetic predispositions for smaller brains.
The principle investigator of the study, Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London said: ‘The English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) study addresses one of the most fundamental questions in developmental psychology and psychiatry — how does early experience shape individual development? It is crucial to remember that these young adults have almost always been loved by their adoptive families and received great care since leaving institutions. Despite all the positive experiences and accomplishments, these young adults still suffer from deep-rooted deprivation.
Dr Nuria Mackes, IoPPN’s first author, stated: “Previous research on the English Adoptees(ERA) study has suggested the emergence and persistence low IQ and a higher level of ADHD symptoms involves structural modifications in the brain but we have not been able until now to provide direct evidence for this. This study demonstrates the neuro-biological basis of these disorders by demonstrating the profound effects of early poverty on brain size.
The study also examined where these changes were occurring in brains and what local features might have contributed to them. Comparable to UK adoptees in the UK, the brain volume and surface area of the young Romanian adult who had suffered as children was significantly smaller than the UK.
For young adults from Romania, the right inferior temporal area was more dense and had a greater surface area and thickness. This was associated to lower ADHD symptoms. This suggests that ADHD symptoms may be prevented by an increase in volume or surface area in this area. The right medial prefrontal area is where the volume and the surface area are the largest.
Professor Mitul Mehta of the IoPPN, who was the neuroimaging lead for this study, said that there were structural differences between the two groups in three brain regions. These regions are associated with functions such as organisation and motivation, information integration, memory, and memory. It’s quite interesting to see that the right inferior lobe of the brain is larger in Romanian youths. This may indicate that the brain can adapt and reduce the negative effects associated with deprivation. This could explain why some people are less affected by deprivation than others. We believe this is the first time such convincing evidence has been presented of compensatory effects surrounding deprivation.
The study found that the Romanian young adults had been placed in institutions within their first few weeks of being born. They were often malnourished and had very little stimulation. The time spent in institutions before being adopted into families in the UK ranged between 3 and 41 month.
Professor Sonuga-Barke reflected on the implications of the study and said that: “By investigating long-term effects of deprivation, our research highlights the necessity for a life-span view on the provision of any support or help, especially during the transition into adulthood. It is more speculation that the evidence of neural compensatory activity in the inferior temporallobe gives encouragement to seek out ways to help the brain adjust and improve outcomes. It would be interesting to see how cognitive training could reduce ADHD symptoms by targeting this area directly.
The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesFunded by Medical Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council and NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre.