A unique investigation into the profound impact of early orphanage life on brain activity found definitive links to our development into adulthood.
In a compelling new study, US researchers have unveiled a striking connection between a toddler's brain activity and IQ levels at age 18.
Through rigorous comparison of cognitive abilities among fostered, institutionalised, and home-raised children, the research revealed that children living in institutions - such as orphanages - exhibit lower IQ scores.
The study's implications could be far-reaching, transcending academic boundaries and pushing for changes in policy worldwide.
The findings stem from the still ongoing Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) - a comprehensive longitude study that started in the autumn of 2000 - to investigate the effects of early institutionalisation on child development after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu's communist regime in Romania in 1989.
Science stemming from communism
Ceaușescu became notorious for implementing policies to boost the nation's population.
The measures included strict regulations on contraception, abortion, and family planning, inadvertently resulting in a significant surge in the birth rate, effectively, almost doubling it.
The implementation of his Stalinist vision, coupled with the country's economic challenges, led to an increasing number of unwanted children being abandoned and left under state care, which in turn led to the construction of hundreds of orphanages across the country.
"The foetus is the property of the entire society," Ceaușescu infamously said. "Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity".
Ultimately, Ceaușescu's 24-year regime eventually crumbled, with the world discovering the country’s vast network of orphanages housingwith thousands of children, ranging from toddlers to babies, enduring deplorable conditions.
The precise count of children who resided in institutions throughout the communist era remains elusive, but some sources put the figure at 170,000.
The Bucharest Early Intervention Project
As the new Romanian government sought to navigate the complex landscape of Romania’s institutionalised children, child development experts were invited to lend their expertise.
Dr Nathan A Fox, a distinguished professor from the University of Maryland College Park in the United States, was one of them.
"We got there about 10 years after [the fall of Ceaușescu], and with the participation of the Romanian government, we started a study and an intervention called Bucharest Early Intervention Project," Fox recalled.
Along with his teammates from the University of Harvard and Tulane University in the US, Fox hoped to answer long-standing questions about the intricate connection between early life circumstances and cognitive development.
Right at the start of the investigation, "half of the children were taken out of the institution and placed with families - foster families that we had screened and selected; the other half remained in the institutions where they had been living at the time that the study started," Fox told Euronews Next.
A new look into the project
In the most recent study, using decades’ worth of data, Dr Enda Tan, also from the University of Maryland and tutored by Fox, set out to examine a new and unexplored correlation: early brain activity and subsequent IQ scores.
His findings suggest that "early experiential factors and environmental differences may have affect later IQ differences or changes in brain functioning," Tan told Euronews Next, adding that his research highlights one more time, "the importance of early intervention for promoting healthy development among children living in disadvantaged environments”.
Previous studies had also found that the earlier children were placed into foster care, the better their cognitive outcomes later in life. Tan’s IQ evaluation also confirmed this factor to be positive.
“Institutional rearing and later (vs. earlier) foster care intervention (...) predicted lower IQ at 18 years,” the study, published in the scientific journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, concluded.
Results with worldwide implications
The Romanian orphans are not the only neglected children in the world, Fox emphasised. In the United States, for example, "the most common form of maltreatment of young children is neglect".
"And we know what the negative consequences of neglect are, both in terms of brain as well as behaviour," he said, adding that there are "anywhere from 6 to 8 million children around the world who are living in some sort of institutional care. Whether it be the result of abandonment due to poverty or war".
The findings should serve as a wake-up call for policy reform, advocating for the rights and well-being of neglected children worldwide and for more people to adopt, he says.
"The goal is to try and prevent young children from being placed in institutions. We want to try and make it so that the policy is to place them in some sort of familial care".