Researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital have noticed that psychologically and physically neglected children have less gray matter. The study’s results show that there is a decrease in white matter as well, but this can “catch up” if the circumstances improve.

Neglected children have less gray matterA team of researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital, led by Doctors Margaret Sheridan and Charles Nelson, have studied the brains of children that were institutionalized and, in time, were placed into quality homes. The children were part of a project called Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP). The research included MRI scans of three groups of children, with ages from 8 to 11:

• One group of 29 kids who have been reared in an institution

• One group of 25 kids who were placed in quality homes

• One group of 20 kids who have never been in an institution

The MRI brain scans showed that the kids who spent time in an institution have smaller amounts of gray matter, even if, in time, they have been placed in quality homes. Of them, those who have never been placed in foster care showed a reduced amount of white matter, too. By comparison, the kids placed in quality homes, showed an increase in white matter, once they entered a family.

“Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development”, says Dr. Sheridan, adding that not only institutionalized children show these results, but also children suffering a wide range of abuse: from physical abuse, to abandonment, to exposure to war and poverty.

“Our cognitive studies suggest that there may be a sensitive period spanning the first two years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development”, notes Dr. Nelson. “The younger a child is when placed in foster care, the better the outcome”, he adds.