NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 14, 2005

Infants ignored for long periods in foreign orphanages may miss the social interplay needed to "prime" brains for normal development, but adoptive parents say most kids who spend less than two years in an orphanage are mentally healthy, reports USA Today.

Psychologist Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota and neonatologist Dana Johnson followed 2,300 children from other countries adopted by United States families in the 1990s.

Gunnar used a behavior problem checklist filled out by parents of kids adopted an average of six years earlier and found:

  • Parents of children adopted before age 2 reported fewer emotional and behavioral problems than reported by American parents overall.
  • The adoptees were somewhat more likely than others to have trouble paying attention and the older the child when adopted, the greater the risk of problems.

Johnson compared children adopted internationally by married couples with those adopted by parents who are single or are living with a partner of the either sex and found:

  • After accounting for how long the kids were in institutions and quality of care, children cared for by the unmarried were just as well-adjusted as married couples' kids.
  • Those most likely to suffer long-term problems were much shorter than average when adopted, probably a sign of deprivation, and they had sensory problems such as impaired hearing or sight, or being ultra-sensitive to touch or noise.

Pediatric neurologist Harry Chugani, of Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, says Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show the brain's emotional centers are already functioning in 1-week-old babies. Using scans to compare connective fibers in the brain, he found children adopted from Romanian orphanages had fewer fibers with weaker connections in their frontal cortexes than children never in orphanages. The adopted kids are being treated for attachment problems and will be re-scanned to see whether behavioral improvement changes their brains.

It is unknown how much genes or prenatal environment influence recovery from early brain disturbance, Gunnar says, but the quality of the institutional care seems to matter most.

Source: Marilyn Elias, "Orphans Face Development 'Risk,'" USA Today, October 11, 2005.

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