Early Deprivation Affect Brain Development

During World War 2, children in the UK were evacuated to unfamiliar families for reasons of safety. The professional attention to the effects of family disruption preceded the attention to serious physical and emotional deprivation of children raised in residential institutions such as orphanages as a result of war. 

Since Bowlby’s report for WHO about the negative effects of institutional deprivation, it is now well established that early deprivation faced by many institutionalised children has serious consequences for children’s neurobiological, social, behavioural, and cognitive development.

However, less is known about the effects of timing and duration of adverse exposures and its pervasiveness on later development. This type of knowledge is important because it can inform child mental health professionals about how to treat or prevent the effects of early deprivation.

Early deprivation continues to affect brain development well into adolescence

Children were randomly selected to participate in this foster care program providing scientists an unusual opportunity to study what happens to children’s brains when they’re deprived of attention and emotional connection. A new study by the group published on Oct. 7 in Science Advances shows that early deprivation continues to affect brain development well into adolescence.

Sheridan and a team of researchers from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project published their findings today in Science Advances. Their research shows that children who were randomly placed out of institutional care and into well-supported foster care before the age of 3 had changes in areas of the brain that support higher-order problem solving years later, when the children were 16.

In addition, children placed into high-quality foster care before 3 years old saw typical brain development from 9 to 16 years, in areas related to emotional reactivity, language, and executive function, but this pattern was altered to children who were deprived of family care.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, launched in 2001 is a landmark study of the impact of institutionalization, a severe form of neglect on child development. It is the only randomized controlled trial of foster care as an alternative to institutional rearing. Between the ages of 6 and 33 months, 68 children were removed from orphanages and placed in high-quality foster care. Families who received a foster child were frequently visited by a social worker and given significant financial support, which helped families integrate and provide support.

The children have been tracked throughout their childhoods, and initial evidence of the negative impact of institutionalization on development changed the way Romania approached childcare and family leave.


Margaret A. Sheridan, Cora E. Mukerji, Mark Wade, Kathryn L. Humphreys, Kathryn Garrisi, Srishti Goel, Kinjal Patel, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Charles A. Nelson, Katie A. McLaughlin. Early deprivation alters structural brain development from middle childhood to adolescence. Science Advances, 2022; 8 (40) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn4316