The Dim-Post

November 18, 2011

Now THIS is what I’m talkin’ about

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 4:15 pm

Further to yesterday’s discussion on empiricism and parenting:

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.


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.


  1. You don’t need to be much of an empiricist to know that loving and caring for your children is usually good for them (and you)

    Comment by insider — November 18, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

  2. Yep, I meant to say yesterday, keep an eye on those telomeres.

    But this does add weight to the ideal – try to help at risk kids as early as possible. The problem is the parents who have short telomeres, that’s where the focus of support needs to be. Before conception of their kids.

    Comment by Pete George — November 18, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  3. Ahh yes, the good old social welfare system that looked after you from erection to resurrection

    Comment by insider — November 18, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Or as Celia would have it….mollycoddling by helicopter mums leads to longer telomeres?

    Comment by pkiwi — November 18, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  5. Correlation does not imply causation. The kids in the orphanages appear to spend their days inside, while the fostered ones presumable get to spend time outside. The net result is that the fostered kids probably have higher vitamin D levels then the non-fostered ones which will affect telomere length, and brain development and many other things. Emotional and social neglect has little relevance here and may even have none.

    Comment by chiz — November 18, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  6. Useful stuff. I’ll make a note not to sequester my boys in a Central European orphanage for any longer than absolutely necessary. Dad of the Year, here I come…

    Comment by garethw — November 18, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

  7. So that is why my sisters insisted I change my nephews and nieces nappies when I am baby sitting, it was for the kids own good. Hell thanks Danyl I thought it was revenge for being mean to them when we were kids.

    Comment by Hamish Stewart — November 18, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  8. I wish *my* dad had spent all day on Jstor instead of playing with me..

    Comment by gazzaj — November 18, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

  9. Hang on, Danyl. Surely you can see the difference between:

    “IMO, this is how you should bring up your kids…”


    “I exploit my powers as Uber Dictator to deny basic medical services relevant to pregnancy and family planning.”

    The primary difference between the positions is not of power, but that fact that the former is typically born of experience, and other is a Pol Pot-esque exercise in delusional policy-making.

    I can relate to your position, though. We birthed our eldest child in London, and when she was about 7 weeks old we jumped in the Kombi and cruised around Europe for about 6 weeks. The health worker was horrified at our plans. She said that young babies were unable to handle extended periods of travel. I suggest to my partner that she ask the health worker to opine on how the Mongolian Horse Clans were able to thrive under such conditions. In the end we settled for a compromise – we agreed that we wouldn’t bath our infant in the Mediterranean sea, given the risk of it being polluted.

    Comment by Mikaere Curtis — November 18, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

  10. I wish *my* dad had spent all day on Jstor instead of playing with me..

    Wins the inetrnet for today!!!

    Comment by andy (the other one) — November 18, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  11. You can look closer to home that that, with The Brainwave Trust: (Established by New Plymouth paediatrician Dr Robin Fancourt.)

    Comment by Ataahua — November 19, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  12. Chiz – have you ever come across Harlow’s experiments and Attachment Theory? A bit less esoteric that vitamin D deficiency causing behavioural issues.

    Literally, monkey see, monkey do.

    Comment by Gregor W — November 19, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  13. does anybody else find this study a little ethically disturbing? As in, maybe they should have spent their efforts on trying to get the kids out of the orphanage, rather than leaving them to rot and measuring what effect it had on brain development (really? It was bad, jesus who would have guessed). I think the reason why there are so few controlled studies of child up-bringing is that you can’t get ethics approval for them which is a good thing.

    Comment by Amy — November 20, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  14. In what manner is it esoteric to suggest that vitamin D deficiency casues behavioural issues? We know that vitamin D levels in the general population are declining over time and this is contributing to the diabetes epidemic (and, possibly, to the rise in food allergies and autism). We know that Vitamin D is involved in embryonic neurogenesis, and that it affects mood, and telomere length. There are studies hinting that it affects intelligence and aggression.

    Comment by chiz — November 20, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  15. Esoteric in the fact that it reaches for the obscure (albeit completely reasonable and provable) rather than the obvious.

    Comment by Gregor W — November 20, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  16. end italic?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — November 21, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  17. Nope.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — November 21, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  18. Esoteric in the fact that it reaches for the obscure […] rather than the obvious.

    Obviousness is in the eye of the beholder I suppose. To me vitamin D would be the obvious explanation rather than maternal deprivation. I don’t reaaly see how deprivation would or could affect telomere length and if there is an explanation for how it could do so it isn’t obvious to me.

    Comment by chiz — November 21, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  19. Chiz – I was extrapolating, given that a number of experiments in this area have shown a reduction in maternal attention leads to a correlating reduction in mammalian growth hormones, including but not limited to those associated with brain development.

    Admittedly, it might be a long bow to draw specific to telomeres though.

    Comment by Gregor W — November 22, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  20. Oh, I don’t have any problems with maternal deprivation affecting hormone levels. It was specifically the telomere claim that irked me here. Telomeres are so trendy today that even psychologists have heard about them and want to make claims about them.

    Comment by chiz — November 22, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

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