DENVER, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Children neglected in orphanages during the early months of their lives can suffer brain trauma that lasts for years, leading to physical and mental difficulties such as clumsiness and poor balance even after attentive parents adopt them, researchers reported late Friday.
However, such impairments can be reversed -- in part or in full -- the longer such children dwell with adoptive families.
"We did see the longer they are in these orphanages, the worse they perform, but we also see the longer they are in adoptive homes, the better they perform. That says something incredible about the human brain," researcher Seth Pollak, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told United Press International.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pollak said future biological insights into these problems should yield key insights for specific courses of therapy for troubled children.
"The worst thing that happened, in a meeting with a group of parents, a parent told me the pediatrician told them they should've gotten a discount, because the child was defective," Pollak said. "Frankly, children have all sorts of problems -- they develop asthma, diabetes, lots of things. These children are not defective, nor do I see lack of improvement. They're brought out of awful environments and brought into homes."
Pollak and colleagues looked at children adopted from other countries. In the United States, the number of such children has skyrocketed in the last decade, from 7,000 to 17,000. The team focused on 24 children, ages 5 to 6, now living in Milwaukee. All had spent the first seven to 41 months of their lives in Russian or Romanian orphanages.
"When the World Health Organization went in and looked at these orphanages in the early 1990s, the orphanages were described as ranging from 'poor' to 'appalling,'" Pollak said.
In many of these institutions, he added, orphans spent entire days in toyless cribs housed in quiet, colorless rooms, with clothes that didn't fit and rare contact with caregivers.
Through studies of children from such deprived environments, psychologists hope to learn more about the difficulties all infants suffering neglect face, Pollak explained.
When the adopted children were given development exams, Pollak said all appeared bright and ready to learn. However, they also showed unusual clumsiness, poor balance and difficulties incorporating movement of the left and right sides of the body.
Many had been earlier diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, but the investigators found the children were not impulsive, as kids with ADHD typically are. They also had normal age-appropriate abilities to pay attention to visual tasks, such as scanning a picture for particular details.
However, the children did find it "much more difficult to pay attention to auditory information, such as when they had to listen to sounds and remember the rules of a game," Pollak said. In such situations, the children performed very poorly overall. "We think that's particularly important, since it maps into what they do in a classroom," he said.
Although the children performed very well on memory tasks involving vision, they had much more difficulty in remembering tasks for verbal information, he added. Such problems could stem from faulty neural circuitry in the cerebellum, which helps control motor skills, and the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to attention.
"These are two parts of the brain that are last in development," Pollak explained. "These problems are emerging in those parts of the brain that are developing most when they are in these problem environments." Such problems might be due to a lack of opportunities to crawl or explore during infancy in the orphanages.
Another study, conducted by psychologist Megan Gunnar at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and colleagues, revealed that children adopted from the most deprived orphanages in Eastern Europe had elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol years after adoption, compared to other adopted children.
"Obviously, we cannot manipulate early human experience for the sake of science. Here, we can discover important clues on the nature of recovery," said psychologist Charles Nelson of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Nelson's team also is engaging in a long-term study of children in Eastern European orphanages. They have found the orphans lag far behind in physical growth and mental development.
"While such findings are disturbing, the initial results of intervention are encouraging," Nelson said, adding that the adopted orphans are making rapid improvement. "For language, age of placement makes an enormous difference, with children adopted before 26 months of age making a rapid catchup," he said.
"What's nice about the work is how the picture is now coming together," Nelson explained.
Pollak agreed: "It's good to see improvements. It's good to see these adoptive homes matter."