Nelson had traveled to Romania to take part in a cutting-edge experiment. It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support. Images from the orphanages had prompted an outpouring of international aid and a rush from parents around the world to adopt the children. But ten years later, the new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. With backing from the MacArthur Foundation, and help from a sympathetic Romanian official, Nelson and colleagues from Harvard, Tulane, and the University of Maryland prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages. They would also track a third set of children, who were with their original parents, as a control group.
They came to the obvious conclusion: the children who were taken out of the orphanages did better. Then:
This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages. In theory, damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain—making the shorter telomeres a harbinger of future mental difficulties. It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.
This adds to research done on animals and in observational studies that have shown that things that happen eary (in the first two years of life for people) can lead to permanent problems. That’s why this statistic is so disappointing:
The annual federal investment in elementary school kids approaches $11,000 per child. For infants and toddlers up to age two, it is just over $4,000.
Of course, in the US there is nothing like the Romanian orphanages but the article notes that much of the daycare in the US isn’t very good and a fair percent is quite bad. The science therefore suggests that we should be spending more on very young children. What do you think the chances are for this?
As an aside, when I teach intro stats I will note that many types of studies can not be run as experiments and I would have thought this was one. The fact that it could be done here (and that it helped the situation) doesn’t speak well about the state of humanity.