Length of deprivation in infants affects intellectual development for years

Following the fall of the Ceauescu regime in Romania, the world became aware of the dreadful plight of children who had been raised in profound deprivation in institutions. In response, many American and European families adopted these children. When these children left their institutions, most were severely malnourished and severely physically and psychologically delayed. Now a new study published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development finds that despite having spent at least seven-and-a-half years in their adoptive homes and having had six years of schooling, the early experiences of profound institutional deprivation continue to exert marked adverse effects on the children's IQ even at age 11.

The researchers, from King's College and the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, New York University and the University of Rochester Medical Center, have followed these children since adoption. Earlier studies found the children showed a remarkable degree of developmental catch-up by age 4 or 6, although a minority of children had persisting deficits. This study was designed to show if this "catch-up" could be maintained at age 11.

The researchers identified four particularly striking findings:

  • There were no detectable effects on IQ when the deprivation ended before 6 months. This implies that even with profound deprivation, recovery is possible if confined to this infancy period.

  • For any period of deprivation in ages 6 through 42 months, the children had an IQ deficit of about 15 points. This finding suggests that the deprivation caused some type of change in the brain known as "developmental programming." This occurs when the body (including the brain) adapts to certain experiences that occur during a sensitive growth period when key physical developmental changes are also occurring. Given that this affect did not occur in children under six months, it appears that while it takes a while for development

Contact: Andrea Browning
Society for Research in Child Development

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