Psychologists glimpse biological imprint of childhood neglect

The absence of a loving caregiver in the earliest years of life could sway the normal activity of two hormones - vasopressin and oxytocin - that play an essential role in the ability to form healthy social bonds and emotional intimacy.

Announced by psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the new finding demonstrates for the first time that severe neglect and social isolation can directly affect a young child's neurobiology in ways that potentially influence emotional behaviors. The work is reported online in the Nov. 21, 2005 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Questions about how children regulate emotions and form social bonds has not really made contact with recent advances in the neurosciences," says senior author Seth Pollak, a UW-Madison professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics and researcher at the Waisman Center for Human Development. "But this work makes a link between complex emotional behaviors and the developing brain."

"It's exciting that we've taken an area of child development that has been very descriptive and can now look at it in a more mechanistic way," adds doctoral student Alison Wismer Fries, the lead author of the study.

The UW-Madison work emerges at a time when families in the developed world are adopting children internationally in record numbers. Orphanages in developing nations, however, are often overwhelmed by the numbers of children in their care. Many adopted children who lived in such orphanages, consequently, spent some part of their early years without the emotional and physical contact that is so critical for social development.

Crucial to making the link between social behavior and hormones was the work of co-author Toni Ziegler, an endocrinologist at the UW-Madison National Primate Research Center, who developed a technique that enables researchers to track vasopressin and oxytocin levels through the analysis of urine. The procedure is far less invasi

Contact: Seth Pollak
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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