Summary: Researchers report children who experience deprivation early in life have impaired memory and executive function between the ages of 8 and 16 compared to peers who were placed in quality foster homes.
Source: Boston Children’s Hospital.
Young children experiencing deprivation and neglect in institutional settings have impaired memory and executive functioning at ages 8 and 16 compared with peers placed early in quality foster homes, report investigators at Boston Children’s Hospital. The study, interpreting the latest findings from the randomized controlled trial, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This study shows us that the effects of deprivation and neglect in early childhood continue well into the second decade of life, providing strong evidence that early experience has a long-term impact on cognitive functioning in adolescence — a very important period of social and biological development,” says Mark Wade, PhD, of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and the paper’s first author.
An estimated 8 million children worldwide live in institutions. The long-running BEIP study compares psychosocial, cognitive and brain outcomes in children raised in Romanian orphanages, versus those adopted early in life by carefully vetted foster families and children who were never in institutions.
An analysis last fall reported high levels of mental health problems when institutionally-reared children reached adolescence, in particular difficult behaviors such as rule-breaking, excessive arguing with authority figures, stealing or assaulting peers. But these problems were reduced among children placed early with foster families.
The new analysis focused on cognitive functioning, in particular memory and executive functioning. “Executive functioning includes several cognitive processes that help individuals be more goal-oriented and solve problems,” explains Wade. “It is important in academic achievement and social functioning in childhood, and is also related to long-term occupational attainment, income and other aspects psychosocial well-being.”
- Children in all groups, institutionalized or not, improved on several measures of memory and executive functioning as they got older (from age 8 to 16).
- Among institutionalized children, even those eventually placed in foster care, early impairments in attention, short-term visual memory, spatial planning and problem solving (all components of executive functioning) among persisted through adolescence.
- The gap in spatial working memory between ever-institutionalized children and those raised in the community widened by adolescence.
There was one note of hope:
When institutionalized children were placed early in quality foster care, early difficulties in visual-spatial memory and new learning diminished by adolescence, making them indistinguishable from other children by age 16.
“Institutionally-reared children start out with more difficulties, but when they are assigned early to positive caregiving environments, they may demonstrate some catch-up on certain aspects of executive functioning,” says Wade. “A safe, nurturing, and cognitively stimulating environment in a family-based setting is critical to children’s long-term success, and may help some who struggle early get back on track during adolescence.”
The study also found that an EEG measure of brain activity at age 8, namely higher resting EEG alpha power, predicted better executive functioning at ages 8, 12, and 16.
“This may point to a neural mechanism that supports children’s cognitive development,” says Charles A. Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital and senior author on the paper.
Funding: Nathan A. Fox of the University of Maryland and Charles H. Zeanah of Tulane University School of Medicine were coauthors on the paper. The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Binder Family Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health of the NIH (R01MH091363), and a Banting postdoctoral fellowship.
Source: Bethany Tripp – Boston Children’s Hospital
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
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Original Research: Abstract for “Long-term effects of institutional rearing, foster care, and brain activity on memory and executive functioning” by Mark Wade, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, and Charles A. Nelson III in PNAS. Published January 14 2019.
Long-term effects of institutional rearing, foster care, and brain activity on memory and executive functioning
Children experiencing psychosocial deprivation as a result of early institutional rearing demonstrate many difficulties with memory and executive functioning (EF). To date, there is scant evidence that foster care placement remediates these difficulties during childhood. The current study examined longitudinal trajectories of memory and EF from childhood to adolescence in the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a randomized controlled trial of foster care for institutionally reared children. We demonstrate that both ever- and never-institutionalized children show age-related improvements on several measures of memory and EF from age 8 to 16. Distinct patterns were observed for different domains of functioning: (i) Early-emerging disparities in attention and short-term visual memory, as well as spatial planning and problem solving, between ever- and never-institutionalized children persisted through adolescence; (ii) the gap in spatial working memory between ever- and never-institutionalized children widened by adolescence; and (iii) early difficulties in visual-spatial memory and new learning among children in foster care were mitigated by adolescence. Secondary analyses showed that higher resting EEG alpha power at age 8 predicted better EF outcomes in several domains at age 8, 12, and 16. These results suggest that early institutional rearing has enduring consequences for the development of memory and EF, with the possibility of catch-up among previously institutionalized children who start out with higher levels of problems. Finally, interindividual differences in brain activity relate to memory and EF across ages, thus highlighting one potential biological pathway through which early neglect impacts long-term cognitive functioning.