How Isolation Damages Youngsters' Developing Brains

By Sophie Bushwick | September 18, 2012 1:20 pm

childhood neglect

Young children need attention—and not just to keep them from wandering off or yelling their lungs out. Social interactions actually help their developing brains. We know about this from studying children and animals raised in relative isolation: Neglected children, like those raised in Romanian orphanages, suffer from behavioral and cognitive deficits as adults, and isolated young monkeys grow up to have weaker memory and learning abilities than their socialized peers. Just what is happening in the brain to trigger these mental problems?

According to a new paper in the journal Science, it’s all about the fatty tissue myelin, and the cells that produce it. Babies are born with very little myelin in the brain—as they develop, specialized cells called oligodendrocytes wrap insulating myelin sheaths around the long, rod-like sections of certain neurons. These myelin coatings help electrical signals travel more quickly through children’s brains.

To test myelin development in a neglected brain, researchers raised mice in three different environments after weaning: alone in a cage, a standard cage population of four mice, or an enriched environment with eight mice to a cage and lots of toys. After four weeks, the isolated mice demonstrated less social interaction and weaker working memories. And the myelin layers around their neurons were thinner, produced by oligodendrocytes with simpler structures than the oligodendrocytes in the more social animals.

Further tests showed that this poor myelin production occurred even when mice were isolated for only two weeks after weaning and then returned to a social environment. In addition to showing one of the possible causes of cognitive problems in neglected children, this finding illustrates the fact that isolation during the critical period of children’s development can cause irreversible damage to a their brains.

Image courtesy of kodomut / Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • vel

    As much as I would have loved to have been home-schooled, is this a valid argument against it?

  • Frances-anne

    Many homeschoolers are part of programs that bring kids together, or participate with classroom activities at a school (such as going in for band class or PE), or after school activities. Most homeschool parents do not isolate their children, they just don’t want them receiving what they consider a sub-standard education in public school.

  • Joe_Ks

    Vel, if the public education system teaches your children what to believe rather than how to think, My personal view is home schooling is better. Seriously, I used to be a supervisor on a construction related job. During the summer, most of our work was on school properties. The pick up in work required temporary summer help to be hired. I was a supervisor for 15 years, and I can tell you honestly that the previously home schooled college kids we hired were hands down the most respectful of regulations and authority, the most eager to do the job well, the easiest to get along with and relate to, in every way more efficient and reliable than those kids who had graduated from public high schools. They invariably earned my personal respect and appreciation as a supervisor. They made my job easier and I didn’t have to tippy toe around their feelings or excuses like I had to do so often with public high school graduates. I didn’t have to figure out how to motivate them or keep them honest in their work, it was their nature to be motivated and honest. We only had one problem with them: We couldn’t keep them, they had bigger and better plans for their lives than being time clock laborers on a construction crew. This is kind of long, but it is honest. I was not home schooled myself, I grew up a couple of generations ago, but I can promise you that home schooling, if done RIGHT from K-12 is an absolute blessing for a child. If done wrong, they might as well be in the public system. The deciding factor, I believe, is not home schooling vs. public schooling. The deciding factor rest not in social trends, claims or opinions. It rest in the dedication to excellence in education of the parents who home school, including not just academic issues, but personal character and social training as well. In the final analysis, how children turn out socially and intellectually is much more the responsibility of parents than it is public education. Being home schooled does not automatically equate with social isolation. A wise parent would be in touch with other home schoolers for their own learning and to provide their children with social peers.

  • tharun

    Home schooling doesn’t mean you are isolated or your freedom for social interaction is denied.This experiment means no interaction of any kind with anyone.you will still be in contact with your parents ,sibling in a home schooling environment……..

  • Clary

    This sounds like a reason to be very concerned for premature infants, and other babies who must stay in the hospital for weeks with only limited caregiver interaction. For instance, babies born with addictions and removed immediately from a parent but then unable to leave the hospital to enter foster care. Perhaps some of their problems originate not solely from the addiction, but also from the relative isolation during treatment.

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