Orphanage experience alters brain development

Emily Carlson

During the last decade, many American families have opened their hearts and homes to children adopted from Eastern European orphanages. But after coming to the United States, these children often suffer from a set of developmental problems that affect their growth, learning and social interactions.

By studying these children and the problems they face, researchers from UW-Madison have developed a better understanding of how certain early childhood experiences can alter the development of the brain and, as result, also alter the development of particular skills or abilities.

Preliminary results from the study, part of the Wisconsin International Adoption Research Program, were presented Friday, Feb. 14, during a news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver.

Seth Pollak, a UW-Madison psychologist and lead investigator of the study, examined certain skills and abilities among 5- and 6-year-olds who had suffered a profound experience early in life: During their first seven to 41 months of life, these children lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages.

“When the World Health Organization went in and looked at these orphanages in early 1990s, the orphanages were described as ranging from ‘poor’ to ‘appalling,'” says Pollak. In many of these state-run institutions, the orphans spent the entire day in toyless cribs housed in quiet, colorless rooms; they wore clothes that didn’t fit and they had little contact with caregivers.

“So few adults were caring for so many children that the environments were generally void of stimulation and human interaction,” explains Pollak.

However, after adoption, he says, “these children go from the most deprived environments to some of the most enriched ones. In one day, these children become part of well-educated, affluent, stable and loving families.” They now live in what Pollak calls an “optimal environment” for children.

Yet, as the children adjust to their new surroundings, they continue to experience a number of physical and behavioral problems, such as ear and gastrointestinal infections, malnutrition and delayed growth. These problems, says Pollak, generally vanish within a year of the children’s arrival in the United States.

For some children, physical and behavioral problems persist. These include difficulties learning and forming social bonds, says Pollak. As a result, he adds, the children are often diagnosed with intellectual delays, attachment disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

But according to the Wisconsin psychologist, few studies have investigated the specific physical and behavioral problems – and their possible causes – that these adopted children face: “Very little research has actually involved laboratory-based research studies of these children. Most of the earlier studies have relied on parent questionnaires.” He adds, “The next generation of laboratory-based studies is important. After all, how can we develop interventions for these kids if we are not exactly sure what the problems are?”

By examining the skills and abilities of children who spent the first part of their lives in orphanages, Pollak and his colleagues have found that these children do have normal intelligence and show patterns of strength, as well as weakness, across different skill areas. Some of these patterns, says Pollak, may be linked to stages of post-natal brain development.

Pollak studied 24 Romanian and Russian children adopted by families now living in greater Milwaukee, Wis. Specifically, he evaluated each child’s ability in areas of attention, memory, language skills, visual perception, reasoning and sensory-motor development.

All of the children performed well on tasks that required visual-perception skills, such as arranging blocks in patterns. Nearly all the children were in the normal range of intelligence and showed age-appropriate skills in reasoning ability. However, more than half of the children showed extreme difficulties in paying attention to verbal information.

“When children had to listen to words, remember a task and act quickly, many of them had a hard time,” explains Pollak, who adds that these multiple tasks are similar to the ones children must perform in the classroom. Although the children had difficulty on this test of attention, Pollak says they didn’t display other behavioral symptoms of ADHD, such as hyperactivity or impulsiveness.

Furthermore, all of the children studied showed some delays in sensory-motor development. “They had poor balance and difficulty integrating movement of the right and left sides of their bodies, often making them clumsy,” describes Pollak.

The researchers speculate that these motor delays may be caused by the lack of opportunities children in orphanages have to crawl or explore during infancy. “This clumsiness,” adds Pollak, “could affect their ability to play with peers and, as a result, form social bonds with other children.”

The study also found that while a deprived environment appears to hinder some aspects of development among these adopted children, an enriched one enhances it. According to the results, the longer children had been living with their adoptive families, the better they performed on many of the tests.

Together, these findings not only provide new information about the unique developmental problems of children adopted from international orphanages, but also point to the significance of early experience on the development of the brain, says Pollak.

“The behaviors that relate to attention are linked to the pre-frontal cortex and motor skills are controlled by the cerebellum. Both of these regions are the last parts of the brain to develop and can continue to develop for years after birth,” explains Pollak. “If children are in neglectful situations, these parts of the brain may not receive the ideal amount of stimulation for healthy development.”

Based on this, the psychologist speculates that it was the early orphanage experience – the lack of stimulation and interaction with others – that influenced the development of certain abilities among the adopted children.

“This study provides evidence that certain parts of the brain require stimulation for optimal development,” says Pollak. “But the most amazing part is that it also shows just how adaptable the brain can be in the right environment.”

Pollak hopes that these findings will encourage the placement of children in family, rather than institutionalized, settings and also offer new avenues for designing more effective interventions that could help children who spent their early years in deprived environments reach their full potential.