Tonight!! Bunny Roo: I Love You exhibition opens at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra, CA! Stop by to see original paintings from my newest picture book, as well as the opening for the Red Cap Cards show, or check out the originals & prints for sale online:
New University of Washington research finds that children’s early
environments have a lasting impact on their responses to stress later in
life, and that the negative effects of deprived early environments can
be mitigated — but only if that happens before age 2.
April 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the
research is believed to be the first to identify a sensitive period
during early life when children’s stress response systems are
particularly likely to be influenced by their caregiving environments.
“The early environment has a very strong impact on how the stress response system in the body develops,” said lead author Katie McLaughlin, a UW assistant professor of psychology.
“But even kids exposed to a very extreme negative environment who are
placed into a supportive family can overcome those effects in the long
The study focuses on children who spent the first years of their
lives in Romanian orphanages and others who were removed from orphanages
and placed in foster care. It finds that the institutionalized children
had blunted stress system responses — for example, less heart rate
acceleration and blood pressure increases during stressful tasks and
lower production of cortisol, the primary hormone responsible for stress
By comparison, children who were removed from the Romanian
institutions and placed with foster parents before the age of 24 months
had stress system responses similar to those of children being raised by
families in the community.
The results suggest that children’s early experiences can impact the
development of the stress response system, and that removing them from
adverse environments can mitigate such damaging effects.
“Institutionalization is an extreme form of early neglect,”
McLaughlin said. “Placing kids into a supportive environment where they
have sensitive, responsive parents, even if they were neglected for a
period of time early in life, has a lasting, meaningful effect.”
The research is part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project,
launched in 2000 to study the effects of institutionalization on brain
and behavior development among some of the thousands of Romanian
children placed in orphanages during dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign.
Researchers tested 138 children at about age 12 from three groups:
those who had spent several years in institutions, others who were
removed from institutions and placed into high-quality foster care, and
children raised in families living in areas near the institutions.
The children placed into foster care were moved at between six months
and 3 years of age. Those left in institutions remained there for
varying amounts of time before eventually being adopted, reunited with
their biological parents or placed in government foster care after
policies around institutionalization changed in Romania.
During the tests, children were asked to perform potentially
stressful tasks including delivering a speech before teachers, receiving
social feedback from other children and playing a game that broke
partway through. Researchers measured the children’s heart rate, blood
pressure and several other markers including cortisol.
The children raised in institutions showed blunted responses in the
sympathetic nervous system, associated with the flight or fight
response, and in the HPA axis,
which regulates cortisol. A dulled stress response system is linked to
health problems including chronic fatigue, pain syndrome and autoimmune
conditions, as well as aggression and behavioral problems.
“Together, the patterns of blunted stress reactivity among children
who remained in institutional care might lead to heightened risk for
multiple physical and mental health problems,” the researchers write.
McLaughlin said it’s difficult to say for certain why the children’s
stress response systems were blunted. It’s possible that since they
endured such extreme stress early in life, the tasks the researchers put
them through were relatively benign in comparison and thus did not
evoke a strong response.
More significantly, McLaughlin said, their stress response systems
might have been initially hyperactive at earlier points in development,
then adapted to high levels of stress hormones by reducing the number of
receptors in the brain that stress hormones bind to.
“If we’d been able to measure their stress systems early in life, we
would expect to find very high levels of stress hormones and stress
reactivity,” she said.
Related research from the study found that children raised in the orphanages had thinner brain tissue in areas linked to impulse control and attention, and less gray matter overall.
The children involved in the study are now about 16 years old, and
researchers next plan to investigate whether puberty has an impact on
their stress responses. It could have a positive effect, McLaughlin
said, since puberty might represent another sensitive period when stress
response systems are particularly tuned to environmental inputs.
“It’s possible that the environment during that period could reverse the impacts of early adversity on the system,” she said.