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For young children in high stress home environments, the effects can be long-term and dramatic. A new study at the University of Washington found causal evidence that the stress response system suffered extreme, persistent effects based on early caregiving environment. The study offers new insight to prior, non-human studies of impact on brain development. An article in UW Today explained:
“The research is part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, launched in 2000 to study the effects of institutionalization on brain and behavior development among some of the thousands of Romanian children placed in orphanages during dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign.
Researchers tested 138 children at about age 12 from three groups: those who had spent several years in institutions, others who were removed from institutions and placed into high-quality foster care, and children raised in families living in areas near the institutions.
The children placed into foster care were moved at between six months and 3 years of age. Those left in institutions remained there for varying amounts of time before eventually being adopted, reunited with their biological parents or placed in government foster care after policies around institutionalization changed in Romania.
During the tests, children were asked to perform potentially stressful tasks including delivering a speech before teachers, receiving social feedback from other children and playing a game that broke partway through. Researchers measured the children’s heart rate, blood pressure and several other markers including cortisol.
The children raised in institutions showed blunted responses in the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the flight or fight response, and in the HPA axis, which regulates cortisol. A dulled stress response system is linked to health problems including chronic fatigue, pain syndrome and autoimmune conditions, as well as aggression and behavioral problems . . . Related research from the study found that children raised in the orphanages had thinner brain tissue in areas linked to impulse control and attention, and less gray matter overall.”
The study found that stress in early environments creates lasting negative impact on stress responses of the children in their teen years, causing heightened stress hormones and stress reactivity. The study also found that these negative impacts can be mitigated if treated by age 2.
Check out the full article by Deborah Bach in UW Today at: http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/04/20/study-shows-early-environment-has-a-lasting-impact-on-stress-response-systems/