Laughing_KidEarly childhood is a critical period for developing children. Research from the University of Washington finds that children raised in institutional settings, such as an orphanage, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and to have atypical brain development. The findings contribute to the body of evidence about how ADHD develops and how caregivers can limit the risk factors for the disorder.

Data for this research came from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), a longitudinal study that followed children raised in institutions in Romania from early infancy through adulthood. The researchers compared 58 of the BEIP participants with 22 children raised with families in the same community. The researchers conducted brain imaging scans and ADHD assessments for all of the participants.

A deprived environment, like that of an institution, was associated with significant changes in brain development. The children from BEIP exhibited reduced cortical thickness compared to the children raised with families. The prefrontal, parietal, and temporal cortices were among the affected brain regions. Diminished density in these cortical areas was associated with stronger inattention and impulsivity, both common ADHD symptoms.

The study’s findings are consistent with other research about which areas of the brain regulate attention and memory. The research may explain why children from deprived environments have a higher risk for ADHD.

“The early caregiving environment has lasting effects on brain development in children. Identifying strategies for mitigating these effects is critical for improving mental health and educational outcomes among children raised in deprived environments,” stated first author of the study Dr. Katie McLaughlin, assistant professor at the University of Washington.

This research is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

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