The human brain goes through dramatic developmental changes in the first years of life. During this period it is particularly sensitive to environmental influences.
This sensitivity helps babies learn and develop, but it also leaves them vulnerable to negative experiences, such as maltreatment, which can have a lasting physical and psychological impact.
In our latest research, published in PNAS, we show that extreme adversity early in life is linked to changes in brain structure in adulthood. Early childhood adversity experienced in institutions was related to a smaller brain as well as regional changes in brain structures. Some of these changes were linked to neurodevelopmental problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can arise following adversity.
Our study examined a group of adoptees who were exposed to severe early deprivation when living in institutions in Romania under the Ceaușescu regime. The conditions in these institutions were appalling. Often children did not have enough food and they had no toys to play with. They were confined to cots and had no permanent caretakers with whom to form a bond. Many children died in these institutions.
After the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu, footage of the conditions in these institutions gained worldwide publicity. This was followed by a large international adoption campaign. For the children, adoption meant a sudden change in their circumstances for the better. They were now living in nurturing and loving families.