Child negligence is a term we hear far too often. The psychological effects of this form of child abuse have been widely documented, but its physical consequences are much less known. Recently, a team of researchers studied the physical effect that neglect during childhood can have on the human brain and uncovered an unsettling fact: changes in white matter.

In the United States, the foster care system has greatly replaced the need for traditional orphanages. Although the system is far from perfect, it attempts to give children a chance at growing up in a setting as close to the nuclear family as possible. Unfortunately, in other countries foster care systems are not as widely used, and orphan children are often raised in government-run institutions. In a project known as The Bucharest Early Intervention Project, researchers traveled to one such government institution in Romania to document the physical effect that growing up in such a setting had on the developing brain.

The 15-year-long study began at the beginning of the millennium and only ended recently. The researchers followed 136 children who spent more than half of their lives in institutional care. Follow-up exams were conducted at 30 months, 42 months, 54 months, 8 years, and 12 years of age.

By definition, neglect is described as the ongoing failure to provide a child with necessary care. It is the most common form of child abuse in the United States but is also often found associated with both physical and sexual abuse. Due to overcrowding and lack of funds, these state-run orphanages in Romania would often have as many as 12 children under the care of just one adult supervisor.

Dr. Johanna Bick, of Boston Children's Hospital, and coauthors reviewed the results from the study and found that there were significant associations between neglect in childhood and brain structure. “Results from this study contribute to growing evidence that severe neglect in early life affects the structural integrity of white matter throughout the brain…” wrote the authors.

White brain matter plays an important role in the connectivity between different parts of the brain and has been referred to as our brain’s “information superhighway,” Time reported.

As reported by Time, The Bucharest Early Intervention Project has previously shown that MRI scans of children living in these infrastructures develop measureable lower gray matter and white matter volume in the cortex of the brain.

There is hope, however, for children of orphanages: early intervention. Past studies have shown that children who spent their infancy in these orphanages but were transferred to higher quality fostercare as small children did not experience the same brain changes and, in fact, have similar neurological makeup to children who were raised in traditional families. The authors wrote that they speculated “early intervention may support long-term remediation in specific fiber tracts involved in limbic and frontostriatal circuitry and the sensory processes.”

Source: Bick J, Zhu T, Stamoulis C, et al. Effect of Early Institutionalization and Foster Care on Long-term White Matter Development. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015.