Just last month, a study was published in JAMA Pediatrics that took a new approach to studying the neurological effects of long-term early childhood neglect. Unlike previous studies conducted on this topic, Dr. Johanna Bick and colleagues were able to perform a randomized clinical trial using young children in Romania. The researchers created an experimental group by randomly assigning children from six Romanian institutions, characterized by low caregiver-to-child ratios and a lack of developmental experiences, to higher-quality foster care through the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. In addition, an age- and sex-matched group of children who had never been separated from their biological parents acted as a control in the study. Dr. Bick and colleagues were interested in the effects of these different experiences on the long-term development of white matter.

The study found that the early childhood neglect characteristic of Romanian institutions had statistically significant impact on the normal development of white matter, particularly in the corpus callosum and areas of the brain responsible for limbic function and sensory processing. Additionally, they found that children who had begun their lives in an institution but who had been switched to a more nurturing foster care environment showed white matter development that more closely resembled that of the control group than the institutional group. This led researchers to suggest that remediation of early damage to white matter development due to neglect could be possible, an exciting result for the study.

It is important to note, however, that this study is only a contribution to the research dedicated to studying the impact of early childhood neglect. First, the findings regarding potential remediation of white matter development in the foster group are limited by the fact that foster children showed similar development of the corpus callosum compared to the institutional group, which suggests that if in fact such remediation is possible, it may be incomplete. What’s more, the inclusion of six different institutions, with no controls for the exact differences in conditions at each, could be problematic in terms of consistency within the experimental group. The study also fails to provide a detailed account of the deficits children at such institutions might experience, leaving questions about exactly how the three treatment groups differ. However, despite these limitations, the study offers a promising look at the effect of positive post-natal experiences on the development of the brain, even after neglect in early childhood.