Cherish that child

by gabeatkinson / 13 December, 2012
Emotional deprivation is showing up in MRI scans of children’s brains.
Photo/Thinkstock


The importance of a child’s first three years has long been known, but only in recent years has science been able to produce the stark neurobiological evidence of just how much childhood neglect stunts the growth of a developing brain. As MRI scans have shown, children who have been neglected and abused may have smaller brains than those raised in healthy circumstances, with deficits being most noticeable in the prefrontal lobe area, the most sophisticated part of the brain. Functional MRI scans have also shown the synapses of neglected children don’t spark as they normally would, as if a dimmer has been applied to the neuronal network.

“It’s made what we already knew make sense: why an abused, neglected child is so poor at concentrating and ignoring distractions, at managing emotions and memory,” says Children’s Commissioner, White Ribbon ambassador and Hastings-based paediatrician Dr Russell Wills. “The whole picture hangs together biologically as well as clinically. It helps us understand why we’ve had this growth in some mental illnesses in adults. The link between adverse childhood experiences and adult mental illnesses has been known for a long time; what wasn’t clear was the biological connection.”

Humans are born already possessing their lifetime total of brain cells, or neurons, but the development of the connections between those neurons depends on life experience, particularly before the age of three. That also governs the development of myelin, which coats neuronal networks like insulation around wires, and which affects the speed of transmission between neurons. Around the time the brain develops those connections, it starts to prune them. If, for instance, a child is born blind in one eye as a result of a cataract and that eye isn’t operated on within the first six months, that child won’t regain his or her eyesight even if the cataract is removed later on; if the cells between the optic nerve and the back of the brain aren’t used, the brain prunes them. Similarly, the brain of a child who isn’t spoken to, played with or cherished will prune the neurons involved in relationships, learning and thinking. “So that is hard-wired, like the child with the cataract.”

Wills has seen a dramatic increase over the past decade in the number of children showing development delay and behavioural disturbance, commonly the result of neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and fetal alcohol effects. The symptoms can be profound. “We’re talking about kids starting school at five, with language of a two-and-a-half- or three-year-old.” Once the damage is done, it’s extremely difficult to change a child’s neurological trajectory, but early intervention is making a significant difference.

Contrary to the picture we might have gathered from the headline-grabbing stories of child abuse, the situation is not hopeless. “I don’t feel that way at all. I’ve seen so many children with these problems who have been transformed. “We’ve had to become much better at asking difficult questions – of mums, because usually it’s the mums who bring in their kids. Like, ‘Are you in a violent relationship?’ ‘How’s your own mood?’ ‘How much do you drink?’ What we’ve found is that if you do that in a non-judgmental and empathic way, where your agenda is to help the child and the mother, people tell us all kinds of stuff. “And that means you can get to the root of the problem efficiently and quickly, and put support packages around that child and mother.”

Naming the problem is useful – telling people they’re depressed, that they’re alcoholic, that they’re in a violent relationship. Telling them these problems can have a permanent effect on their child’s brain is usually the catalyst. “I’ve seen parents who are evil. I’ve seen some who are so damaged they are unable to care for their children, who torture and maim their children. So I’m not being Pollyanna here. But I’ve met many, many more parents who love their kids to bits and want to change, and when you frame it in that way that I’ve described, they are desperate to change, and accepting of the help.”

Health Briefs


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LIVELY WHITE MATTER


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KICKSTART SEX REFUTED


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