University of Bath

Casting a long shadow: the enduring effects of childhood institutional deprivation on the brain

Part of the Minerva Series of Lectures

13 Mar 20196.00pm
13 Mar 20197.00pm

The English and Romanian Adoptees study is a natural experiment which has investigated the long-term outcomes of children who were initially raised in the Romanian orphanages of the Ceausescu regime, but then adopted into nurturing families in the UK. These children have now been followed into adult life, along with a control group of non-deprived UK adoptees.

In the lecture, Dr Graeme Fairchild will discuss the enduring effects of severe deprivation in early life on mental health outcomes and brain structure and function in young adulthood. The Romanian adoptees who were exposed to severe institutional deprivation for more than 6 months had significantly worse mental health in adulthood than those adopted before age 6 months or the UK adoptees - in particular, they showed higher levels of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, and disinhibited social engagement symptoms. The team collected magnetic resonance imaging data to explore the long-term effects of severe deprivation on the brain. The Romanian adoptees had substantially smaller brains than the UK adoptees – an effect that increased as a function of deprivation duration. Beyond such global effects, there were localized effects of deprivation on the frontal and temporal regions of the brain. It was also found that deprivation-related forms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder were linked to different changes in brain structure and connectivity from non-deprivation related forms of these disorders. This research documents the long-term consequences of early deprivation on mental health and brain development but also has broader implications for how we assess and treat mental disorders in young people.