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The Orphan I.Q. Dilemma: Brain Plasticity and Environmental Enrichment

Posted: Tue, October 27, 2015 | By:

by Steven Umbrello

Brain plasticity is a crucial concept in the field of neuroscience and therapeutic practices. The concept involves the brain’s ability to be malleable; to be able to change and respond to new stimuli. Sale, Berardi, and Maffei say of brain plasticity that it is:

Indeed, we can define brain plasticity as the capacity of neurons and of neural circuits in the brain to change, structurally and functionally, in response to experience. This property is fundamental for the adaptability of our behavior, for learning and memory processes, brain development, and brain repair. Experience is translated in patterns of electrical activity within neural circuits, and it is the pattern of electrical activity which drives the different forms of functional and structural plasticity, through the spatially and temporally coordinated action of specific cellular and molecular factors. Neural plasticity may involve changes in the efficacy of already existing synaptic contacts, formation of new synaptic contacts or elimination of existing ones, large-scale changes in dendritic or axonal arborization, and production or signaling of neuromodulators or neurohormones. (Sale et al., 190)

Environmental treatments are shown to be categorically effective in aiding the brain to become increasingly able to adapt and increase its plasticity. This is important when we come to look at the environments and cognitive capacities of orphan juveniles. The juvenile state of development shows the highest level of plasticity. Thus, it is better able to adapt to new situations and is more receptive to change and learning. This does not discount the possibility of mature brain plasticity. However, it highlights the importance of the developmental stage of youth.

This leads us to how important it is that we discuss the issue of children who are raised in institutions such as orphanages and how this affects their cognitive development, especially since their time in these institutions coincides directly with their most malleable developmental period. Sale et al. describe the effects perfectly:

In humans, vast epidemiological evidence suggests that early alterations in maternal care have durable or even permanent effects on the individual personality traits, cognitive abilities, and vulnerability to disease, with a specific role for early life maltreatment in the etiology of stressrelated disturbances. Much of the available knowledge derives from the study of children who were abandoned at birth and placed in orphanages, and in particular studies conducted in Bucharest orphanages, showing that orphans reared in harsh conditions characterized by very little attention from caregivers often suffer from a kind of “institutionalization syndrome” which comprises several growth delays and neurobiological/behavioral alterations, including a low intelligence quotient (IQ), disorganized forms of attachment, impaired language abilities, and a tendency toward a pathological social-emotional development. (Sale et al., 198)

Orphanages are a paradigm example of the separation of maternal, and, of course, paternal, care from young children. They do highlight however that since the quality of nurture and the age of maturation is so important, this can help to be mediated by the implementation of programs in which institutionalized children are placed in therapeutic foster care. This can begin to remediate the symptoms that come with the lack of maternal separation.

Although there currently exists over 153 million orphan children worldwide, with over 7 million in institutionalized care, it would be easier to focus on the national stats so that we can better able analyze the costs and benefits of social programs in this area.

In the U.S., there are over 120,000 orphans. Every year about 27’000 remain unadopted and age out of the institutions that they were raised in. These institutions, because of their lack of a strong figure to bond with the individual children, create greater chanced of indiscriminate behavior in these individuals. The longer the prolonged institutionalization that one is subjected to, the higher the probability that they will be prone to engage in such behavior. However, Gleason et al. have shown in their study the benefits of foster care. They showed that foster care reduces this social deviance in children, and that in fact longer institutionalization does increase this behavior.

The environment that one is raised in, with stable authoritative and caring figures, helps to increase the plasticity and healthy emotions of young individuals. This is most certainly true in the emotionally unstable and undeveloped children that are commonly found in orphanages.

This shows us the importance of providing orphan children with the programs that are most beneficial to them, as well as to increase the rate of foster care adoption. Doing this is easier said than done.

As a policy initiative, governmental originations should try to implement more incentivized programs to increase the rate of adoptions. Not only is this the most ethical thing to do, but also it relieves the societal burden that all taxpayers help to maintain. Not only is institutionalized care not working, but it is also actually helping to produce more deviant citizens, where it was promised to be a safe haven for lost children.

Further Readings:

Cognitive Recovery in Socially Deprived Young Children: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, Charles A. Nelson III, Charles H. Zeanah, Nathan A. Fox, Peter J. Marshall, Anna T. Smyke,and Donald Guthrie Science 21 December 2007: 318 (5858), 1937-1940. [DOI:10.1126/science.1143921]

Environment and brain plasticity: Towards an Endogenous Pharmacotherapy, Alessandro Sale, Nicoletta Berardi, and Lamberto Maffei 2014: 94, 189-234. [DOI: 10. 1142/physrev.00036.2012]

Indiscriminate Behaviors in Previously Institutionalized Young Children, Mary Margaret Gleason, Nathan A. Fox, Stacy S. Drury, Anna T. Smyke,Charles A. Nelson III, and Charles H. Zeanah Pediatrics 2014; 133:3 e657-e665; published ahead of print February 2, 2014, doi:10.1542/peds.2013-0212


Steven Umbrello is a student of philosophy of science and technology at the University of Toronto as well as a junior associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. His primary research focus is on the ethics and philosophy of emerging technologies and Stoicism as practical philosophy. You can find more of Steven’s work on his website Stoically Speaking.


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