Cognitive Recovery in Socially Deprived Young Children: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project by Charles A. Nelson, How does orphanage care affect childrenIII, Charles H. Zeanah, Nathan A. Fox, Peter J. Marshall, Anna T. Smyke, Donald Guthrie Science 21 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5858, pp. 1937 – 1940

This adoption research compared the cognitive development of children raised in one of three settings: institution or orphanages, foster home, or family of birth. The study was designed to compare abandoned children reared in child welfare institutions to abandoned children placed in institutions but then moved to foster care. A control group of children born at the same maternity hospitals but living with birth families was also studied. Of the non-control group, there were 187 children less than 31 months of age residing in six orphanages for young abandoned children in Bucharest, Romania.

Young children living in institutions were randomly assigned (drawing names out of a hat) to continued institutional care or to placement in foster care, and their intellectual development was tracked through 54 months of age. The cognitive outcome of children who remained in the institution was markedly below that of never-institutionalized children and below children taken out of the institution and placed into foster care. The improved cognitive outcomes observed at 42 and 54 months were most marked for the youngest children placed in foster care.
The three main findings from this study are:

  • Children reared in orphanages showed greatly diminished intellectual performance (borderline mental retardation) relative to children reared in their families of origin.
  • Children in foster care experienced significant gains in intellectual development.
  • The younger an orphan is when placed in foster care the better for brain development. There may be a sensitive period spanning the first 2 years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development. Indeed, there was a continuing “cost” to children who remained in the institution over the course of our study. These results are compatible with the notion of a sensitive period, but discovering whether such a period truly exists or determining the borders that delineate it would likely require a larger sample size with a broader age range at intervention onset.