Brain’s Early Growth,Timetable May Be Crucial
I will be discussing Sandra Blakeslee’s New York Times article that addresses the Romanian orphanages and the infants that they found when the doors of these orphanages flew open when the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu’s reign ended in 1989, specifically about Simona Young.
This article addresses the Romanian orphanages and the infants that they found when the doors of these orphanages flew open when the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu’s reign ended in 1989, specifically about Simona Young. It tells the story of deprivation that these infants experienced and like Simona laid in cribs alone for up to 20 hours a day, sucking nourishment from cold bottles propped over their tiny body. I’ve read these stories through the years, especially Constance Holden’s article, “Small Refugees Suffer the Effects of Early Neglect”, and it was disturbing for me to learn that some of these babies’ heads were flattened because they were forced to be bottled fed with bottles that were wired to the sides of their beds like a hamster cage. These infants were not allowed to be held which means there was no attachment; the nurses were not allowed to touch them except to change their diapers while in their cribs. As a result, many of these infants did not live to see their first birthday. But Simona Young did; she lived there for 28 months of her young life, and was rescued from the orphanage like so many other infants and then adopted by families in America, Canada and Europe.
This article was written when she had just turned 6, adopted by a Canadian family in 1991, and according to her new mother, she was making steady progress. Naturally, she is not unscathed by this experience even though it happened to her as an infant. And, not unlike an abused child in their own home, has emotional problems that persist. And as mentioned in the article, “a mother’s touch literally helps shape her baby’s brain”. The absence of their mother and/or touch defies the attachment theory’s basic concept: that baby is provided with a safe and secure base from which to explore the world. Psychologists from various hospitals and universities observed many of these adopted infants through the years. Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia observed Simona and 44 other Romanian orphans who were adopted around the same time. There were 15 other infants that were instead adopted within a month or two of their births when the breakdown of the Soviet Bloc took place. These two groups of infants were compared by the researchers. Their hypothesis: Can love overcome a bad beginning?
I am most interested in the science of these discoveries and the new dawning of brain scans that helped to tell the story as well. Neurologist Harry Chugani of Wayne State University Children’s Hospital in Detroit did in fact find in his research neurological differences, according to Constance Holden’s article (Holden, 1996) when he observed Romanian adoptees utilizing the positron emission tomography (PET). His results told the story of their little brains that seemed to use glucose at an unusually high rate. Also, according to this article, Chugani did PET scans of four adoptees and compared them with data from age-matched controls. “The scans are all quite abnormal,” says Chugani. “Resting glucose metabolism values are about 50% higher than normal in every area of the brain” (Holden, 1996). Brain scans give important information for diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries and related medical conditions and can assess a baby’s risk of having cognitive, developmental or motor problems.
Whether psychological or physical, the loss of attachment with parents in the early years is crucial to the infant’s brain development and overall psychological growth. The Romanian orphanages taught us an important lesson in human infant frailty and their unique brain architecture at the dawning of infant brain scanning. It is the beginning of understanding infant intelligence and an infant’s vast capabilities.
Holden, C. (1996). Small refugees suffer the effects of early neglect. Science, 274(5290), 1076-1077.