Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Example of the Effects of Nurturing and Trauma on Brain Development in Children

In a previous post which primarily concerned the effect that trauma has on teenagers to explain why a teen at Hephzibah House might have transformed their memories to meet the demands of their abusers, I presented information about the brainwaves of children and how they develop. I did not focus on the huge topic of the effects of abuse on child development in very young children which is hard to summarize in a blog post. It's a tremendous topic. I only briefly reviewed the process of brainwave development with age but mentioned the erroneous nature of Michael Pearl's assumptions about the “diabolical” plotting that he attributes to infants and very young children, and ability that does not begin to develop until approximately age twelve.

An anonymous reader here forwarded an excellent article, The Two Year Window from last year's The New Republic (December 1, 2011), which offers an example of the effects of nurturing on brainwaves in children and the damage that occurs during harsh conditions and neglect (access the full article as a pdf HERE). I'm very grateful for the concise presentation, as it saves me quite a bit of writing! (And I'm grateful to whoever went to the effort of forwarding me a copy of the article.)  A related editorial at The New Republic website offers some additional supporting material, but I have consistently been unable to get the link to work.

At the outset, I would like to point out that the brain is a most “plastic” or mold-able organ and can develop and reroute neural pathways, rewiring itself, but the early years of childhood are critically important as this article demonstrates quite well.

The article details the study of children in orphanages in Romania, and one of the assessment tools they used to evaluate children was their brainwave development. A Harvard neuroscientist visited a Romanian orphanage and noted that none of the children there cried.  [This is notable, as this also describes how children trained with Pearl-like Methods or the ones once employed by the Great Commission group can respond.]  They just stared at the ceiling and were silent. As noted in the article, Nelson observed that when you learn that there's no one to hear and respond to a cry, babies stop crying. Though it was ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the country still valued the idea of institutions to “warehouse” children in orphanages while they also banned birth control and pregnancy termination. The orphanages were overrun with neglected children.

Nelson, with help from associates from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of
Maryland persuaded the government to initiate an unprecedented study of the institutionalized children through what they deemed the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The conditions were so consistently similar in all of the orphanages, and they compared their development with children that they arranged with the government to place in foster care (which was not the norm in Romania, as they preferred the “warehouse” model for orphans). Without harming children, they could then at least study the conditions of restraint and neglect in the orphanages as compared to the more attentive care within a foster family.

The New Republic article first points out the issue of telomere length, lets call them a component of chromosomes. One of the areas of cancer research involves the study of telomere length, as shortened telomeres are connected to the disease, and it is also believed to be a predictor of mental health problems. The children who were raised in orphanages past the age of two years had substantially shortened telomere length, meaning that the care in the orphanage was not just difficult, it actually changes “the architecture of the brain” in those children. Telomere length may also be an early indicator if not a precipitating factor in the development of the diseases discussed in this post at Overcoming Botkin Syndrome, as many areas of research now seek to elucidate. The afterword of Hillary McFarland's Quivering Daughters also notes the role of cortisol in the development of stress related disease, and the New Republic article also discusses this as a mediator of a multitude of health problems.

Though Nelson's team still actively studyies the children and the data collected about them, they also elucidated other very clear information (as quoted from the article):
Childhood adversity can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head can. And after the age of two, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years.
The article also goes on to talk about the stress response and its effects on brain development, one of the many of the topics discussed recently on this blog. It points out that experiencing a stress response on a chronic basis forms abnormal brain pathways and also develops an enlarged amygdala which is responsible for generating anxiety, one of the structures that becomes overactive in PTSD. In addition to noting the diminished planning ability, cognitive flexibility, memory problems and other factors that also correlate with lower IQ scores. The article also aptly notes:
McEwen’s work showed, among other things, that persistently high levels of cortisol altered the structure of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in forming memories and providing context for emotional reactions. Eventually McEwen introduced a term, “allostatic load,” to describe what was happening when stress hormones in- undated the body for extended periods of time. Subsequent research showed that persistent childhood stress also leads to significant physical problems, such as far higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as Paul Tough explained in an elegant New Yorker article in March.
In another article at Overcoming Botkin Syndrome, I also briefly discuss some Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which is now considered a form of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This condtion results from a trauma which is thought to occur prior to age four because of its effects on brain development. Read more there to see some of the difficult challenges faced by the adult who develops BPD in childhood and how it affects their own ability to parent. Early childhood trauma permanently inhibits the development of the brain structure responsible for transferring short term memory into long term memory (the hippocampus) which creates one of the most problematic and notable elements of BPD.

The article also goes on to describe the implications for society and advocates for greater spending for young families who are disadvantaged, calculating the actual return on financial investments for at risk populations.

But most notably, since I mentioned EEG assessments in this previous post about child development and adults exposed to trauma and thought reform, I find this graphic mostinteresting and is worth a thousand words.

As the title of the article demonstrates, if a child is spared the trauma of the lack of nurture prior to the age of two years, the child's brain develops well and they are able to enjoy normal mental development thereafter. If they remain in the orphanage or are placed in care after age two, the child suffers functional and structural developmental deficits as the EEG data reflects.

This should tell us a great deal about the effects of spanking and aggressive discipline practices used against children. The practice results in life long illness and deficits in mental development and physical health, something that is not just limited to an emotional response. This information is also echoed in sources I've noted here previously including John Bradshaw's Culture of Virtue and other authors like Allan Schore. Michael Pearl might be training parents to raise compliant children who will respond to the biggest thug in the room with the biggest paddle, but children who survive death under his methods will develop life long mental and physical limitations and disorders as a consequence.