In the 1980s, a large number of Romanian children were exposed to long-term, institutional deprivation under the communist dictator Ceaușescu. Many of them were subsequently adopted into affluent British families. Their neurological and psychological wellbeing has been followed in the context of the English and Romanian Adoptees study.
A recent paper by a team of English and Danish researchers published in Psychological Medicine made use of the data in this study to examine the effects of childhood deprivation on a variety of neurological functions, including IQ, inhibitory control, prospective memory, emotion recognition and decision-making.
Their findings are interesting not only because they provide further evidence for an already well-established relation between childhood deprivation and lasting neurological consequences well into adulthood, but in particular because certain symptoms were found to exist regardless of the duration of deprivation. Indeed, duration of deprivation was “not significantly correlated with any neuropsychological outcome.”
The majority of the deficits, including emotion recognition, proactive inhibition, and decision-making were mediated by general cognitive ability (IQ), although prospective memory—the ability to remember to perform an action in the future—was not. Other behaviors, like risk-seeking and risk-aversion, seemed unaffected.
The correlation between IQ and institutional deprivation found by the present authors seems to be unique, as others who have evaluated data from the same children found evidence of “almost complete remission of cognitive impairment in adulthood.” The authors point to the fact that they used a continuous rather than categorical (IQ > 80) measure of IQ, which is by design more nuanced.
“This study contributes to our changing understanding of the power of the early environment to shape brain development -showing that the effects of institutional deprivation on cognition can still be seen after more than twenty years of positive experience in high functioning and loving adoptive families leads us to acknowledge that there are limits to the brain’s recuperative powers,” said study author Edmund Sonuga-Barke.
The fact that the duration of childhood deprivation was unrelated to the degree of deficit is surprising, given previous evidence of duration-related effects in neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, and, as the authors state, “suggests a complex and non-deterministic relationship between neurological deficits … and clinical outcomes.”
The authors note a few limitations, including cross-sectional neuropsychological assessments limiting causal interpretations and a non-deprived comparison group of Romanian children from the same period. Their findings of an “all-or-nothing” relationship between neurological deficits and childhood deprivation are critical and bear further examination, as even short periods of childhood deprivation may lead to lasting cognitive deficits in adulthood.
The study, “The impact of childhood deprivation on adult neuropsychological functioning is associated with ADHD symptom persistence“, was authored by Dennis Golm, Sagari Sarkar, Nuria K. Mackes, Graeme Fairchild, Mitul A. Mehta, Michael Rutter, Edmund J. Sonuga-Barke, and ERA Young Adult Follow Up study team.