Editors' ChoiceNeurodevelopment

Nurture and Neurodevelopment

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Science Translational Medicine  05 Sep 2012:
Vol. 4, Issue 150, pp. 150ec159
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3004807

Certain key environmental interactions may be crucial to early stages of neural development. One way to examine these influences is to study children reared in institutions. Relative to children reared in a home environment, children raised in institutions experience a wide range of developmental problems, including elevated rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other forms of psychiatric illness, difficulties with social interactions, and even differences in brain structure and function. Although these developmental abnormalities are well documented, it is unclear whether the negative influences of an institutional environment can be reversed. In a new study, Sheridan et al. evaluate the effect of intervention in the form of high-quality foster care in children who had been institutionalized.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the authors examined the brains of 79 children from Romania aged 8 to 11 years who had a previous history of institutionalization. Youth in this study were randomly selected to receive foster care or to remain institutionalized or were children with no history of either. Before MRI, the participants also completed electroencephalography (EEG) recording sessions alternating 1-min epochs of eyes open or closed for 6 min. The authors found that children with a history of institutionalization showed a decrease in the volume of cortical gray matter compared with children who had not been institutionalized. Cortical white matter volume was similar in youth selected for foster care or children who had never been institutionalized. In contrast, institutionalized children who were not selected for foster care had less cortical white matter. In addition, institutionalized children had a smaller corpus callosum as compared with those who had never been institutionalized. The authors went further, examining the reduction in EEG α-power (rhythmic brain activity with a frequency between 6 and 12 Hz) in institutionalized children as compared with children raised in a family. They found that children placed in foster care earlier showed improved EEG α-power over previous measurements. These findings suggest that children could compensate for developmental delays incurred during environmental deprivation in institutions.

These results provide evidence that foster care intervention among institutionalized children may allow for the recovery of critical structural and functional components of brain development, even after extreme environmental deprivation. Although this study is limited by a small sample size, it does analyze a relatively uniform sample of youth from institutions in the same city in Romania. This study is the first to highlight the direct impact of the environment on a network of brain regions that give rise to cognition and suggests that early intervention can reverse some of the neurodevelopmental deficits incurred during institutionalization of children.

M. A. Sheridan et al., Variation in neural development as a result of exposure to institutionalization early in childhood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 12927–12932 (2012). [Abstract]

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