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Study Links Severe Childhood Deprivation to Psychological Difficulties in Adulthood

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

Advances in fields of inquiry as diverse as molecular biology, genomics, developmental psychology, epidemiology, sociology, and economics are catalyzing an important paradigm shift in our understanding of health and disease across the lifespan. This converging, multidisciplinary science of human development has profound implications for our ability to enhance the life prospects of children and to strengthen the social and economic fabric of society. Recent reports and the latest research presents an ecobiodevelopmental framework that illustrates how early experiences and environmental influences can leave a lasting signature on the genetic predispositions that affect emerging brain architecture and long-term health.

A team of researchers from the University of Southampton, the University of Bath, and King's College London have provided compelling evidence of the impact of adversity in childhood on psychological functioning in adulthood.

The studies showed that early institutionalization was associated with impaired performance on all tasks in adulthood. Prospective memory deficits persisted after controlling for IQ. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms were positively correlated. Multiple regression analysis revealed that the link between childhood deprivation and adult ADHD symptoms was statistically explained by deprivation-related differences in adult IQ and prospective memory.

These results represent some of the most compelling evidence to date of the enduring power of early, time-limited childhood adversity to impair long-term psychological functioning across the lifespan – effects that are linked specifically to deprivation-related adult ADHD symptoms.

In light of recent studies, 131 Romanian children, who lived in extremely deprived conditions in state institutions until the fall of the Ceausescu regime during the late 1980s, have been tested to determine the consequences of severe malnourishment and other forms of deprivation.

These children, who were adopted before 6 months of age, between 6 and 24 months of age, or between 24 and 43 months, were compared with 50 children who were born in the UK and adopted there by 6 months of age.

Previously published studies on the Romanian children, who usually entered the institutions as young babies, showed that those adopted before 6 months old were cognitively similar to the UK children, while those adopted at later ages had lower IQ scores. Yet, most children adopted at later ages reportedly experienced intellectual “catch-up” by age 4 or 6. Beckett and her team investigated whether this catch-up was maintained at age 11.

Due to the long term effect that neglect can have on a child’s physical, psychological, and behavioral health, providing quality primary prevention programs and services is vital. Programs and services that focus on the overall health and well-being of both children and families and that are designed to promote resiliency and parent capacity are key to preventing child maltreatment in the present and the future as well. The impact these programs have can be limited by funding and resources but the change that communities bring can shed some light on this prevalent issue and raise awareness as well.


1. Almas, A. N., Degnan, K. A., Nelson, C. A., Zeanah, C. H., & Fox, N. A. (2016). IQ At age 12 following a history of institutional care: Findings from the Bucharest early intervention project. Developmental Psychology, 52, 1858–1866.

2. Altgassen, M., Kretschmer, A., & Kliegel, M. (2014). Task dissociation in prospective memory performance in individuals with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 18, 617–624.

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4. Bick, J., Luyster, R., Fox, N. A., Zeanah, C. H., & Nelson, C. A. (2017). Effects of early institutionalization on emotion processing in 12-year-old youth. Development and Psychopathology, 29, 1749–1761.

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