Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain
More than a decade of research on children raised in institutions shows that “neglect is awful for the brain,” says Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Without someone who is a reliable source of attention, affection and stimulation, he says, “the wiring of the brain goes awry.” The result can be long-term mental and emotional problems.
A lot of what scientists know about parental bonding and the brain comes from studies of children who spent time in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s. Children likeIzidor Ruckel, who wrote a book about his experiences.
When Ruckel was 6 months old, he got polio. His parents left him at a hospital and never returned. And Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children.
But Ruckel was luckier than many Romanian orphans. A worker at the orphanage “cared for me as if she was my mother,” he says. “She was probably the most loving, the most kindest person I had ever met.”
Then, when Ruckel was 5 or 6, his surrogate mother was electrocuted trying to heat bath water for the children in her care. Ruckel ended up in an institution for “irrecoverable” children, a place where beatings, neglect, and boredom were the norm.
Researchers began studying the children in Romanian orphanages after the nation’s brutal and repressive government was overthrown in 1989. At the time, there were more than 100,000 children in government institutions. And it soon became clear that many of them had stunted growth and a range of mental and emotional problems.
When Nelson first visited the orphanages in 1999, he saw children in cribs rocking back and forth as if they had autism. He also saw toddlers desperate for attention.
"They’d reach their arms out as though they’re saying to you, ‘Please pick me up,’ " Nelson says. "So you’d pick them up and they’d hug you. But then they’d push you away and they’d want to get down. And then the minute they got down they’d want to be picked up again. It’s a very disorganized way of interacting with somebody."
The odd behaviors, delayed language and a range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, Nelson says. So he and other researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain.
Many of the orphans had disturbingly low levels of brain activity. “Instead of a 100-watt light bulb, it was a 40-watt light bulb,” Nelson says.
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.”
The scientists realized the cause wasn’t anything as simple as malnutrition. It was a different kind of deprivation — the lack of a parent, or someone who acted like a parent.
Top photo: Izidor Ruckel, shown here at age 11 with his adoptive father Danny Ruckel in San Diego, Calif., says he found it hard to respond to his adoptive parents’ love. (Barry Gutierrez for NPR)
Middle photo: In the Institute for the Unsalvageable in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shown here in 1992, children were left in cribs for days on end. (Tom Szalay)
Bottom: Izidor Ruckel dons a hat of a style common in his birthplace, Romania. He now lives in Denver. (Barry Gutierrez for NPR)