How Childhood Neglect Stunts the Brain
Science is painting a dramatic picture of how childhood neglect damages developing brains, so stunting them that neglect might be likened to physically violent abuse.
The latest addition to this research narrative comes from a study of mice placed in isolation early in their lives, an experiment that, on its surface, might seem redundant: After all, we already know that neglect is bad for humans, much less mice.
But they key to the study is in the details. The researchers found striking abnormalities in tissues that transmit electrical messages across the brain, suggesting a specific mechanism for some of the dysfunctions seen in neglected human children.
“This is very strong evidence that changes in myelin cause some of the behavioral problems caused by isolation,” said neurologist Gabriel Corfas of Harvard Medical School, a co-author of the new study, released Sept. 13 in Science.
Corfas and his team, led by fellow Harvard Med neuroscientist Manabu Makinodan, put 21-day-old mice in isolation for two weeks, then returned them to their colonies. When the mice reached adolescence, the researchers compared their brains and behavior to mice who hadn’t been isolated.
The isolated mice were antisocial, with striking deficits in memory. Their myelin, a cell layer that forms around neuronal networks like insulation around wires, was unusually thin, especially in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region central to cognition and personality.