Comment; Brain development is fascinating. Early neglect can have permanent ramifications on developmental potential–despite future enrichment of the environment. Unexpected!

 View ORCID ProfileNuria K. Mackes, Dennis Golm, Sagari Sarkar,  View ORCID ProfileRobert Kumsta, Michael Rutter, Graeme Fairchild, Mitul A. Mehta, Edmund J. S. Sonuga-Barke, and on behalf of the ERA Young Adult Follow-up teamPNAS January 7, 2020 117 (1) 641-649; first published January 6, 2020

  1. Edited by Nim Tottenham, Columbia University, New York, NY, and accepted by Editorial Board Member René Baillargeon November 11, 2019 (received for review July 1, 2019)


Millions of children worldwide live in nonfamilial institutions. We studied impact on adult brain structure of a particularly severe but time-limited form of institutional deprivation in early life experienced by children who were subsequently adopted into nurturing families. Institutional deprivation was associated with lower total brain volume in a dose-dependent way. Regionally specific effects were seen in medial prefrontal, inferior frontal, and inferior temporal areas. Deprivation-related alterations in total brain volume were associated with lower intelligence quotient and more attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms; alterations in temporal volume seemed compensatory, as they were associated with fewer attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. We provide evidence that early childhood deprivation is related to alterations in adult brain structure, despite environmental enrichment in intervening years.


Early childhood deprivation is associated with higher rates of neurodevelopmental and mental disorders in adulthood. The impact of childhood deprivation on the adult brain and the extent to which structural changes underpin these effects are currently unknown. To investigate these questions, we utilized MRI data collected from young adults who were exposed to severe deprivation in early childhood in the Romanian orphanages of the Ceaușescu era and then, subsequently adopted by UK families; 67 Romanian adoptees (with between 3 and 41 mo of deprivation) were compared with 21 nondeprived UK adoptees. Romanian adoptees had substantially smaller total brain volumes (TBVs) than nondeprived adoptees (8.6% reduction), and TBV was strongly negatively associated with deprivation duration. This effect persisted after covarying for potential environmental and genetic confounds. In whole-brain analyses, deprived adoptees showed lower right inferior frontal surface area and volume but greater right inferior temporal lobe thickness, surface area, and volume than the nondeprived adoptees. Right medial prefrontal volume and surface area were positively associated with deprivation duration. No deprivation-related effects were observed in limbic regions. Global reductions in TBV statistically mediated the observed relationship between institutionalization and both lower intelligence quotient (IQ) and higher levels of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. The deprivation-related increase in right inferior temporal volume seemed to be compensatory, as it was associated with lower levels of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. We provide compelling evidence that time-limited severe deprivation in the first years of life is related to alterations in adult brain structure, despite extended enrichment in adoptive homes in the intervening years.

Dr. Raymond Oenbrink