March 01, 2015

Early Intervention Boosts Brain Development of Neglected Children

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Neglect in early life affects children’s brain development. A new study from researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital finds the integrity of white matter in children’s brains is compromised among those who experienced severe neglect during infancy. The researchers also found intervening early improves white matter growth for these children.

White matter refers to the brain’s internal circuitry and neural paths that connect and allow different regions of the brain to communicate. The study is the first to look at the role of early intervention in improving white matter pathways of the brain that underlie emotional and cognitive development.

The researchers studied children from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a randomized study of 136 Romanian institutionalized infants starting in 2000. Half of the children were randomly assigned to high-quality foster care while the other half remained in institutional care. The children were assessed at 30, 42, and 54 months, and at 8 years, with comparisons between the development of the children in foster care, institutional care, and a control group of never institutionalized children.

The researchers analyzed brain data for 69 children when they were eight years of age—23 in high-quality foster care, 26 in institutional care, and 20 in biological families. Few differences were found between the foster children and children in biological families (never institutionalized children), a positive finding suggesting that early intervention promotes normal white matter development. Children in institutional care, in contrast, had profound delays in cognitive and socioemotional development.

The results, published January 26, 2015 in JAMA Pediatrics Online, suggest that early removal from neglectful conditions and placement in high-quality family environments promotes normal brain development among at-risk children. The researchers plan to re-analyze the children’s brain data when they turn 16 to see if their findings remain consistent.