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How orphanage care harms infant brains

  • 02 November 2016

The harmful effect on the infant brain of harsh institutional care was explored in a talk at Caius by Harvard Professor Charles A. Nelson.

At the Cambridge Festival of Ideas event - recorded and now available on the Cambridge University website - Prof Nelson discussed what happens to children who experience profound early neglect, focusing on the findings of a project involving youngsters abandoned at birth in Romania.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, led by Prof Nelson and two other US-based scholars, explores whether foster care can benefit children brought up in institutions.

A total of 136 children who had been abandoned at birth and placed in various institutions in the Romanian capital were targeted for study, along with a sample of 72 children who lived with their biological parents in the greater Bucharest community.  Following an extensive baseline assessment of the children, whose average age was 22 months, half the institutionalised children were randomly assigned to high-quality foster care created by the research team while the other half continued in institutional care. Launched in 2001, the study has followed and studied the children through the first 16 years of life. 

The project found that placing children in foster care, even relatively late in infancy, brought benefits in a number of areas of cognitive and emotional function including IQ, language, positive emotion and attachment. Families appear to have helped the process of brain development via their normal activities of caring for the child and providing verbal and emotional support. The success of parenting was greater the earlier the child was removed from institutional care.

Prof Nelson set the work within the broader framework of the 100 million children around the world who have been abandoned or orphaned, 8 million of whom are being raised in institutional settings.


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