In 1990 a set of images published portrayed various orphanages in Romania where children lived in very dire conditions. They suffered from malnutrition, lived in overcrowded and unhygienic spaces, totally helpless. Said conditions had a permanent effect on the development of those children’s brains. This caused them to have signs of brain damage when compared to children who have had a normal upbringing.
A year after Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship had fallen, a wave of international compassion rescued many of those children. Many of them adopted by Western families.
Despite their affection and care, children still bear the mark of that suffering. The total volume of their brain is smaller than that of other boys. In addition, according to the monitoring of dozens of them, they have several problems. A lower intellectual quotient; worse academic record; higher unemployment rate; and more emotional problems and adults are some of them.
A little bit of History of the research about brain damage.
The majority of the 100,000 children came to be in state institutions in the Ceausescu’s Romania. They were not orphans, only children abandoned by their parents. A crazy natalist policy of the dictator who faced the economic crisis of the eighties caused this. The first adoptions made by Anglo-Saxon families provided a great scientific opportunity
They gave scientists the opportunity to study how suffering impacts the development of the brain; also the impacts of an adverse environment in the early stages of life; and how it is related to brain damages and disorders.
Studies in mice provided certain information. It consisted of how environmental conditions have a great influence in those first months of brain development and personality development. To replicate these experiments in small humans was impossible due to ethical reasons. Therefore, it was extremely important for science the opportunity to study the impacts of suffering in Romanian orphans.
“Over 20 years after those conditions ended, we can still observe differences in brain structure”; says the researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London Nuria Mackes. Together with a group of scientists, Mackes studied the brain of 67 orphans. The children spent between 3 and 31 months of deprivation in a Romanian state institution. After that time English families adopted them. In order to compare, they also analyzed twenty adopted children who came out of British orphanages.
The total volume of the brain is smaller for each month spent in the orphanage.
The results of their study, recently published in PNAS, show an average reduction in total brain volume of 8.57%; even today, when the majority have exceeded 20 years of age or are close to doing so. Research shows that the level of reduction depends on how much suffering the children endured. For every additional month, spent in those orphanages they have between two and three cubic centimeters less of brain mass. Even though, as soon as they reached their new families, their material, emotional and psychological conditions were normal.
These children are a subsample of a larger group who is been studied since they stepped on British soil. The children’s follow-up had the following structure: at the time of arrival; at 4-6 years old; at 11-15 years old and; in 2017, when they were already between 22 and 25 years old.
The results from the analyzed period of time published in an article appeared in the medical journal The Lancet. The first review showed an interesting result. Small children that spent less than six months in a Romanian orphanage; had no cognitive difference with those adopted children of British origen.
However, those who spent more time had lower cognitive and social skills. The differences remained in the following review. As adults, cognitive retardation has disappeared, but other problems have arisen. This shows that there may be a correlation between a conflictive environment and the condition of brain damage or underdevelopment.
According to the study, the degree of abandonment has to do with the variety and severity of the problems
“We see effects on both anxiety and depression that were not present in childhood;” explains the principal author of The Lancet’s study. He is also co-author of the current study.
For Mackes , her new work helps show the physical basis of all this. “They are a demonstration of the profound effects of deprivation in brain size; the connection of these differences with a lower intellectual quotient; and greater symptoms of deficit disorder attention with hyperactivity (ADHD). This offers some of the most consistent evidence of the neurobiological basis of problems caused by suffering. “
There are not many experiments like the ERA study. However, there are some similar investigations that help unravel the causes of such a lasting impact of adversity. This is the case of the British Chinese Adoption Study (BCAS). Said study was conducted with a hundred girls from Hong Kong adopted in the 60s by British families. The institutions of the former British colony are significantly different from Romanian orphanages. This is remarked in the study since most of the women already show little difficulty today.
Science suggests that, in early stages, the brain is more plastic and moldable
The neuroscientist Jamie Hanson works at the University of Pittsburgh (USA). He studied the connection between stress situations in early childhood and the development of psychopathologies in adolescence and adulthood. He has investigated it in abandoned children, in adoptees, in the abused or some street children.
“We think that when the brain is particularly plastic, the experience can have a great influence. Science suggests that, at the beginning of its development, the brain is more plastic and moldable,” he says. Therefore, more susceptible to brain damage and disorders.
Hanson founded variations in the tonsil and brain hippocampus of many of these children. “These brain changes are adaptive in a specific context. Alterations in brain structure can help you in a certain situation.”
The problem is that the context changes. Those who have suffered extreme adversity, such as Ceausescu’s orphans; “may have adapted to a difficult condition at the beginning of their development. But, over time, they escape that context.
However, the brain apparently developed for that initial set of adverse circumstances. Later on faced a different, non-adverse context.”
“The brain has diseases that affect the soul and destroy you as an individual”. Stress and intense suffering are related to disorders and brain damage that can have a permanent effect