“Differential patterns of whole-genome DNA methylation in institutionalized children and children raised by their biological parents”.  Lack of parental care can change the genetics of orphans.Oksana Naumova, et al. Development and Psychopathology, 2011.

Researchers compared the DNA of 14 children in Russian orphanages with 14 children living with their biological families and found that the DNA of institutionalized children was different from children being reared with their families.  The genes that were different involved the control of immune response and cellular signaling systems, including a number of crucial players important for neural communication and brain development and functioning.  Researchers speculate that these differences were caused by the lack of parental care and attention.  It should also be noted that this was a very small study involving only 14 children in each group.

All the children in the study were between the ages of 7 and 10, and the children in the orphanage had been there since birth. The orphanages in study were chosen because of the “high quality” of care.  “They were well equipped, had an adequate ratio of children to adults, had good physical plant facilities, and demonstrated adequate administrative leadership.”  The children living with their biological families were from the same region as the orphanage children and the biological families were of a low socio-economic level since it is assumed that children placed at birth in the orphanage were also born to parents in the lower socio-economic level.  Only families with no evidence of marital dysfunction, records of child abuse, or indications of any substance abuse were included in this comparison sample

We know from animal studies that environmental factors might causes epigenetic modification of the genome and might affect gene expression during the whole lifespan. The epigenetic changes can be caused by diets and chemical substances, as well as behavioral programming and early life experiences, such as child abuse and parental stress.  Epidemiological research has demonstrated that heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, and other health maladies might originate from the early stages of development. .  Now there is evidence that early deprivation of parental care can also cause epigenetic changes in children.  Researchers believe that the changes in DNA are heritable, thus the children of these children may also carry some of the scars of institutionalization.