Babies crave attention and it’s not just a matter of disposition. A Harvard professor of pediatrics says, “neglect is awful for the brain” and that without affection, attention, and stimulation from a trusted source, “the wiring of the brain goes awry.”

Izidor Ruckel knows so much about childhood neglect he recently wrote a book describing his own childhood in an orphanage in Romania in the 1980s and 1990s. When he was diagnosed with polio at six months of age, his parents abandoned him at a hospital where he stayed, never to see them again, until he was 3 years old. At age 3, he was transferred to an orphanage for “irrecoverable” children. Neglect was profound at the orphanage.

Mother and child playCharles Nelson, the pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, was part of a team who visited Romanian orphanages in 1999. He found more than 100,000 institutionalized children exhibiting a wide array of emotional and mental problems and many had stunted physical growth.

Nelson and his colleagues soon began studying the children for brain abnormalities. Their electroencephalography (EEG) readings revealed levels of brain activity disturbingly low. Nelson likens it to a 40-watt light bulb where a 100-watt bulb should be.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the children’s brains produced troubling results as well. Nelson describes a “dramatic reduction” in gray and white matter in the orphans’ brains. “In other words, their brains were actually physically smaller,” says Nelson.

Research indicates one area of the brain mis-wired by neglect is the amygdala, important for emotional reaction and bonding with others. Children of neglect exhibited very low but steady levels of activity in the amygdala when shown pictures of their adoptive mothers and strange women. When children from a more nurturing environment see pictures of their mothers, the electrical activity in the amygdala bursts into action.

When he was 11, Ruckel was adopted by an American family who moved him to San Diego. Things went well at first, according to Ruckel (his adoptive last name), but trouble soon stepped in. It wasn’t his adoptive parents’ fault, according to Ruckel.

Ruckel suspects his time in the orphanage changed his brain in exactly the ways Nelson describes. He feels these brain changes may contribute to the problems he’s had adjusting to life surrounded by love, affection, and acceptance.

Ruckel left home at 17 and didn’t expect to ever return. When he learned his adoptive family was involved in a serious automobile accident, he realized he needed to be at their side. They reunited in the hospital and enjoy a close relationship today.

Ruckel is now 33 and an advocate for orphans’ rights. He’s producing his second documentary on children adopted from Romanian orphanages. He feels brain cells stifled in the orphanage can develop when the child grows to adulthood in a loving home. He attributes his advocacy for orphans to his parents who demonstrated to him exactly what love, compassion, and affection can do for a child.

Source: Hamilton, Jon. “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain.” NPR Shots. NPR. Feb 24, 2014. Web. Mar 1, 2014.