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How does extreme neglect affect your mental health? 

What impact does severe deprivation have on the development of your brain – and how is this linked to mental illness?

In the early 1990’s there was an international scandal when the extent of neglect in Romanian orphanages was revealed. The children were left abandoned in cots with little food and water and no social and cognitive stimulation. They lacked the love and nurture children thrive on.

Fortunately, many were adopted by loving families in the UK. This week, the BBC reported Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke’s research, published in the Lancet, which has looked at the mental health of 165 these orphans now that they are adults. 

The study suggests that the social and emotional deprivation the orphans experienced in the early years of their lives appears to have had a profound impact on the mental health of many of the individuals.

Those within the group that spent more than 6 months at an orphanage were three to four times more likely to experience mental health conditions as adults, with 50% having symptoms of depression and more than 40% having contact with mental health services.

The group were twice as likely to have autism spectrum disorder and over 6 times as likely to have problems with inattention and hyperactivity.  

Earlier this month at our Mental Health Science Meeting, Professor Sonuga-Barke asked: What impact do extraordinary environments have on the brain? He shared the findings and suggested that a lack of social and cognitive stimulation, as experience by the Romanian orphans, impacts the way the brain develops – essentially causing it to ‘derail’.

Understanding the impact that environments can play on the processes in the brain which are potentially leading to mental illness, can inform how we create therapies to improve these processes. And this is the next step of Professor Sonuga-Barke’s work.

He’s teamed up with Professor Mark Johnson on an MQ-funded project to see if ‘brain training’ will help prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in infants who are at a high risk of developing the condition – for example, their sisters or brothers have it.

Child with brain monitor around its head

So how does this training programme work? It is effectively a computer game which can track a person’s eye gaze. If the 10-month-old children the team are working with can fix their gaze onto an object on the screen for an extended period of time they are ‘rewarded’ with an exciting image. The hope is that it will gradually improve their concentration and attention span – two key areas affected by ADHD.

The tragic findings from the Romanian study show the importance that the environment in which someone spends their early years can have on their mental health.

And it demonstrates exactly why research like Professor Sonuga-Barke and Professor Johnson’s is so vital – exploring new opportunities to intervene as early as possible and potentially even preventing mental health problems before they begin.

Last updated: 26 July 2017

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