Severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains, causing significantly smaller gray matter volumes in the cortex of the brain.
Neurologists say that differences between brain scans of three-year old children can be explained by how they were treated in the first two years of life.
Children exposed to strong parenting, a stable household and lots of love show much larger brains with fewer spots and dark areas than children who have suffered abuse and neglect. Abused children generally have brains much smaller and with less gray matter.
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Well nurtured babies and toddlers are more likely to be more intelligent - both emotionally and academically. The trajectory of their neglected friends is a lot sadder - they're more likely to develop social disorders, turn to drug use and be involved in violent crime.
The theory is supported by research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis from earlier this year. Their research showed children who were nurtured by their mothers developed brains with a larger hippocampus – the part of the brain that is key to learning and memory.
Lead author Dr Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry says “This study validates something that seems to be intuitive, which is just how important nurturing parents are to creating adaptive human beings”.
Professor Allan Schore of UCLA supports this theory, saying that if a child is the subject of such neglect early in life that it can have a severe effect on brain function and development.
According to the Sunday Telegraph (UK), such is the importance of good care that fundamental areas of the brain stunted by neglect may never develop - even if children are taken into foster care.However, an earlier study by Boston Children's Hospital on kids in institutional care found that while social deprivation has a measurable effect on brain growth - with decreased grey and white matter among these children - white matter can “catch up” if circumstances improve.