National Geographic : 2015 Jan
76 national geographic • january 2015 When the researchers conducted an EEG test of the children’s brains, they found that these signals were weaker than the signals recorded from similarly aged children in the general pop- ulation. “It was as if a dimmer switch had been used to turn their brain activity down,” Fox says. He and his colleagues then placed half of the kids with foster families that they picked with the help of social workers. The remaining kids stayed at the institutions. The foster families re- ceived a monthly stipend, books, toys, diapers and other supplies, as well as periodic visits by the social workers. Fox and his colleagues followed the children over the next several years and saw dramatic differences emerge between the groups. At age eight the children placed with foster families at age two or earlier showed EEG brain patterns that were indistinguishable from those of typical eight-year-olds. The kids who had remained at the institutions continued to have weaker EEGs. Although all the children in the study had small- er brain volumes than similarly aged kids in the general population, the ones who received foster care had more white matter—axons connect- ing neurons—than the institutionalized kids. “It suggests that there were more neuronal connec- tions made in the children who experienced the intervention,” Fox explains. The most striking difference between the two sets of children—evident by the age of four—was in their social abilities. “We find that many of the children who were put into our interven- tion, particularly the children who were taken out of institutions early, could now relate to their caregiver in the way that a typical child would,” Fox says. “ There’s enough plasticity in the brain early in life that allows children to overcome After gaining power in Romania in the mid- 1960s, the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu implemented drastic measures to transform the country from an agricultural society into an industrial one. To increase the population, the regime limited contraception and abortion, and imposed a tax on couples older than 25 who were childless. Thousands of families moved from villages to cities to take jobs at govern- ment factories. These policies led many parents to abandon their newborn children, who were then placed in a state-run institution called a leagan—the Romanian word for “cradle.” It was only after Ceausescu was deposed in 1989 that the outside world saw the horrific conditions in which these children were liv- ing. As babies, they were left in cribs for hours. Typically their only human contact was when a caregiver—each responsible for 15 to 20 chil- dren—came to feed or bathe them. As toddlers, they hardly received any attention. The system of institutionalized care was slow to change, and in 2001, U.S. researchers began a study of 136 children from six institutions to investigate the impact of neglect on their development. The researchers—led by Charles Zeanah, a child psychiatrist at Tulane University; Nathan Fox, a developmental psychologist and neurosci- entist at the University of Maryland; and Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at Harvard—were struck by the children’s aberrant behaviors. Many of the kids, less than two years old when the study be- gan, showed no attachment to their caregivers. When upset, they wouldn’t go to the caregivers. “Instead, they showed these almost feral behav- iors that we had never seen before—aimlessly wandering around, hitting their heads against the floor, twirling and freezing in one place,” Fox says. The baby brain is an incredible learning machine. Its future—to a great extent—is in our hands.