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How neglect shapes the brain

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t’s the year 2000 in Bucharest, Romania. Carrying computers, audio amplifiers and electroencephalography (EEG) equipment, University of Maryland neuroscientist Nathan Fox sets up a makeshift lab inside a children’s orphanage. Today, his team will measure the electrical charges inside the orphaned children’s brains and compare them to those of children with foster parents. Fox is one of several neuroscientists from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP)  an American research program tracking the health of 136 orphan children over a period of twelve years. The BEIP will publish its 12-year follow-up data this spring.

“What we found that day was very traumatic,” Fox tells me. “No matter how much we turned up the amplifiers on our equipment, the signal that was coming out of the brains of the kids in institutions were very small compared to typically developing children of the same age living in the community.”

The cause was not physical abuse in any conventional form. It wasn’t cuts, bruises or a blow to the head. Rather, it was the absence of consistent stimulation and response, kindness and warmth. In short, the cause was neglect.

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