New Research Suggests Biological Consequences of Becoming an Orphan

05/12/2011 - New study shows how orphaned children may be more prone to changes in how their immune systems and brains develop than children raised by biological parents.

The study, published online in the journal of Development and Psychopathology, "shows that the early stress of separation from a biological parent impacts long-term programming of genome function," stated Elena Grigorenko, senior author and child studies professor at Yale School of Medicine said in a statement. "This might explain why adopted children may be particularly vulnerable to harsh parenting in terms of their physical and mental health."

Grigorenko and her colleagues took blood samples from children aged 7 to 10 living in orphanages and children growing up in typical families in the northwest region of the Russian Federation. The investigators compared two cohorts: 14 children raised since birth in institutional care and 14 children raised by their biological parents.

They then profiled the genomes of all the children to identify which biological processes and pathways might be affected by deprivation of parental attention and care.

The team found that in the institutionalized group, there were a greater number of changes in the genetic regulation of the systems controlling immune response and a number of important mechanisms in the development and function of the brain.

"Our study shows that the early stress of separation from a biological parent impacts long-term programming of genome function; this might explain why adopted children may be particularly vulnerable to harsh parenting in terms of their physical and mental health," said Grigorenko. "Parenting adopted children might require much more nurturing care to reverse these changes in genome regulation."

The study was funded by the Foundation for Child Development, the USA National Institute of Mental Health, and Edna Bennett Pierce.

UNICEF defines an orphan as a child who has lost at least one parent. Of the approximately 132 million orphans throughout the world, UNICEF estimates that 13 million have lost both parents.

Studies on orphaned children having increasingly examined the psychological impact of the early lives of these children. It is hoped that through understanding how orphaned children are vulnerable will allow adopting parents and alternative care providers to better provide them with the emotional support these children often need.

Unfortunately it has been found that adopting parents lack information on the problem and are therefore unable to offer emotional support; and school teachers do not know how to identify psychological and social problems and consequently fail to offer individual and group attention.