Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton

Severe deprivation in childhood impacts on brain size in adulthood

Published: 9 January 2020

A team of researchers, including Dennis Golm from the University of Southampton have shown that the brains of Romanians who were institutionalised as children during the communist regime are around 8.6% smaller than other adoptees.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) analysed MRI brain scans of 67 young adults, aged 23-28 years, who were exposed to severely depriving conditions in Romanian institutions during Nicolae Ceausescu's regime and subsequently adopted by British families. They were compared to the MRI brain scans of 21 English adoptees of similar ages who had not suffered this institutional deprivation.

Statistical analysis showed that, in this group of young Romanian adults, those changes in brain volume that were related to deprivation were also associated with lower IQ and more ADHD symptoms. This implies that changes in brain structure could play a mediating role between the experience of deprivation and levels of cognitive performance and mental health.

The research investigated other possible factors that could have influenced the results but found the results were unaffected by level of nutrition, physical growth and genetic predisposition for smaller brains.

The principal investigator of the study, Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, who began the study whilst working at the University of Southampton and is now at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London said: ‘The English and Romanian Adoptees (ERA) study addresses one of the most fundamental questions in developmental psychology and psychiatry – how does early experience shape individual development? It’s essential to recognise that these young people have nearly always received great care in loving adoptive families since they left the institutions. However, despite a lot of positive experiences and achievements there remain some deep-seated effects of deprivation on these young adults.’

According to the research, the longer the time the Romanian adoptees spent in the institutions, the smaller the total brain volume, with each additional month of deprivation associated with a 0.27% reduction in total brain volume. Deprivation related changes in brain volume were associated with lower IQ and more symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Dr Dennis Golm, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Southampton recruited participants for the study, collected data and co-authored the report. He added: 'It is striking that we were able to find structural brain changes in adulthood that are linked to the duration of deprivation experienced at a very young age.'

The Romanian young adults in the study had entered into institutions in the first few weeks of life, where they were often malnourished with minimal social contact and little stimulation. The time spent in institutions before adoption into families in the UK varied between 3 and 41 months.

Reflecting on the implications of the study Professor Sonuga-Barke said: ‘By investigating the long term impact of deprivation our research highlights the need for a life-span perspective on the provision of any help and support, especially during the transition to adulthood. More speculatively the evidence of neural compensation in the inferior temporal lobe provides encouragement to look for ways that might help the brain adjust to deprivation and to improve outcomes. For example, it would be interesting to see if targeting this area directly through cognitive training might reduce ADHD symptoms.’




Privacy Settings