How neuroscience helped to rescue Romanian orphansS

Over at Aeon magazine, journalist Virginia Hughes has a gripping story about how a small group of neuroscientists created a government program to place Romanian orphans in foster care — and did some terrific scientific work in the process. Yes, science can improve lives.

Photo in a Romanian orphanage by Thomas Coex/Getty Images

You may have heard about the results that came out of this landmark study, which revealed that children who are in orphanages before age two often suffer from developmental disorders, from low IQ and delayed body growth, to extreme difficulties with socializing. The reason, neuroscientists speculate, is that babies require individual attention in their first two years to develop social and language skills. In orphanages, they usually don't get this kind of attention. That's why foster care is so important.

In this passage, Hughes explains why the group chose Romania for its study.

Romania has had orphanages for centuries. But its orphan crisis began in 1965, when the communist Nicolae Ceaușescu took over as the country’s leader. Over the course of his 24-year rule, Ceaușescu deliberately cultivated the orphan population in hopes of creating loyalty to — and dependency on — the state. In 1966, he made abortion illegal for the vast majority of women. He later imposed taxes on families with fewer than five children and even sent out medically trained government agents — ‘The Menstrual Police’ — to examine women who weren’t producing their quota. But Ceaușescu’s draconian economic policies meant that most families were too poor to support multiple children. So, without other options, thousands of parents left their babies in government-run orphanages.

By Christmas day in 1989, when revolutionaries executed Ceaușescu and his wife by firing squad, an estimated 170,000 children were living in more than 700 state orphanages. As the regime crumbled, journalists and humanitarians swept in. In most institutions, children were getting adequate food, hygiene and medical care, but had woefully few interactions with adults, leading to severe behavioural and emotional problems. A handful of orphanages were utterly abhorrent, depriving children of their basic needs. Soon photos of dirty, handicapped orphans lying in their own excrement were showing up in newspapers across the world. ‘I was very taken with the kids in orphanages,’ [Minnesota neonatologist Dana] Johnson says. Their condition ‘was a stunning contrast to most of the kids we were seeing come for international adoption who had been raised in foster homes’.

In [a scientific] presentation, Johnson had mentioned that the head of Romania’s newly formed Department for Child Protection, Cristian Tabacaru, was keen on closing down his country’s institutions. After seeing the movies, Network scientist Charles Zeanah, a child psychiatrist from Tulane University who specialised in infant-parent relationships, was gung-ho about meeting Tabacaru and setting up a humanitarian project.

[Harvard neuroscientist Charles] Nelson was touched by the videos, too. And he couldn’t help but think of the scientific possibilities of studying these children. ‘The animal model could allow us to dig into brain biology and all of that but, at the same time, we’d be running a parallel human study.’

Eleven months after that emotional hotel meeting, Zeanah and his wife, a nurse and clinical psychologist, travelled to Romania and saw the orphans for themselves. During their first orphanage visit, the couple couldn’t help but start bawling in front of the kids. One child reached out to comfort them, saying: ‘It’s OK, it’s OK’.

The Zeanahs also met with Tabacaru. He was eager to work with the MacArthur group because he thought that a rigorous scientific study could help his cause. ‘If there was scientific evidence to support the idea that institutional care was better for kids, he thought he’d have more leverage with his political colleagues,’ Nelson told me. The data, in other words, could speak for the children.

Go with Hughes on an intense journey to Romania, where she visits the orphanages herself, and interviews the local scientists who worked to create a new government program to put kids in foster care.

Read the full article on Aeon.