Advertisement

Neglect shortens kid telomeres

Young kids that spend more time in institutional care have shorter telomeres than those raised in foster care

By | May 17, 2011

Adversity early in life takes its toll on one's chromosomes: A study of 100 Romanian children found that the more time children spend in institutional orphanages before the age of 5, the shorter their telomeres.
Telomeres on the ends of chromosomes, here white
Image: Wikimedia commons
While previous studies have found that telomere length in adulthood correlated with self-reported childhood stress, the new linkurl:research,;http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/mp201153a.html published today (May 17) in Molecular Psychiatry, is the first to quantify the immediate impact of early life hardship on telomere length. "This is an exciting study with sound methodology that adds to the very recent body of work demonstrating effects of childhood adversity on telomere shortening," linkurl:Audrey Tyrka,;http://research.brown.edu/research/profile.php?id=1127415688 who was not involved with the study and studies human behavior and psychiatry at Brown University, said in an email to The Scientist. "[It] is of great interest because it focuses on institutionalized children who are often neglected and are at risk for a range of adverse health outcomes." Telomeres are stretches of non-coding DNA at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with each cell division. In adults, shorter telomeres have previously been associated with aging, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline, as well as oxidative and psychological stress. Recent research has suggested that adults with adverse experiences as kids tended to have shorter telomeres than controls (1,2), but to date, no studies have looked at the more immediate impacts of childhood deprivation. "We assumed that early and/or chronic adversity would have a deleterious effect on telomere length," wrote pediatrician and neuroscientist linkurl:Charles Nelson;http://www.childrenshospital.org/cfapps/research/data_admin/Site2204/mainpageS2204P0.html of the Children's Hospital Boston in an email. Nelson and his colleagues randomly assigned children 6-30 months of age living in institutions in Bucharest, Romania, into two groups: Half were placed into foster care, and the other half remained in institutions, where they tend to receive less attention and live a more regimented lifestyle. The researchers then measured the length of the kids' telomeres when they were between 6 and 10 years old using a cheek swab. They found that the institutional group had significantly shorter telomeres than those children that had been taken into foster care, and that in both groups, telomere length correlated with total time spent in institutional care before the age of 54 months. "[The results were] completely consistent with our hypotheses," wrote Nelson, who is part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which aims to study the neurological and psychological effects of institutionalization on children. How exactly early life adversity would affect telomere length is unknown, but the brain undergoes many changes in early childhood (3), such as the development of epigenetic patterns that affect gene regulation later on (4) -- including genes that control telomere length. The authors speculate that, if early life stress derails these epigenetic patterns, there could be lifelong consequences. While the study size was larger than those done previously -- , with 48 institutionalized children and 52 in foster care -- it is "smaller than you would like," linkurl:Timothy Spector;http://www.twinsuk.ac.uk/researchunits.html of King's College London's Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology department who was not involved with the study, said in an email. "Nevertheless this study is further evidence pointing towards the potential long-term harmful effects of stress at crucial stages of life that could have consequences in adulthood." S.S. Drury et al., "Telomere length and early severe social deprivation: linking early adversity and cellular aging," Molecular Psychiatry, doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.53, 2011. (1) A. Tyrka et al., "Childhood maltreatment and telomere shortening: preliminary support for an effect on early stress on cellular aging," Biological Psychiatry 67: 531?4, 2009. (2) L. Kananen et al., "Childhood adversities are associated with shorter telomere length at adult age both in individuals with an anxiety disorder and controls," PLoS ONE 5: e10826, 2010. (3) T.J. Silk and A.G. Wood, "Lessons About Neurodevelopment From Anatomical Magnetic Resonance Imaging," Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 32: 158-68, 2011. (4) T.L. Roth and J.D. Sweatt, " Epigenetic mechanisms and environmental shaping of the brain during sensitive periods of development," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 52: 398-408, 2011.
**__Related stories:__*** linkurl:New clue to how telomeres work;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57256/
[25th March 2010]*linkurl:Telomere researchers win Nobel;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56039/
[5th October 2009]*linkurl:Body mass correlates with telomerase expression;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/37391/
[7th December 2006]
Advertisement

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

May 17, 2011

"Nelson and his colleagues randomly assigned children 6-30 months of age living in institutions in Bucharest, Romania, into two groups: Half were placed into foster care, and the other half remained in institutions"\n\nI would think Harvard would have rules against this sort of thing. If Nelson et. al. followed children as they were naturally adopted/placed, that's one thing. If he randomly assigned it, another.\n\nThis seems to have come too late: "Harvard To Institute Research Ethics Training"\nhttp://www.thecrimson.com/article/2010/4/9/research-ethics-training-school/
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

May 17, 2011

Interesting!
Avatar of: Diana V

Diana V

Posts: 3

May 17, 2011

Who gave the consent so that kids be subject to experiments and DNA swabs? Were the orphanage employees encouraged to maintain/increase "adversity" (whatever that means) as part of the experiment?
Avatar of: Cheryl Soehl

Cheryl Soehl

Posts: 15

May 17, 2011

The title was confusing, because, normally, the term "kids" refers to the offspring of goats.\n\nSecondly, "institutional care" in Romania is likely much different than institutional care in the US. Some foster homes in the US are worse than the homes children were removed from. A good, well run facility might be less awful than an overcrowded foster home where little oversight is applied.\n\nFYI -- I have been a court-appointed guardian ad litem for 17 years, so the topic is of interest.
Avatar of: RAM B SINGH

RAM B SINGH

Posts: 6

May 18, 2011

Telomeres are stretches of non-coding DNA at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with each cell division. In adults, shorter telomeres have previously been associated with aging, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline, as well as oxidative and psychological stress. Recent research has suggested that adults with adverse experiences as kids tended to have shorter telomeres than controls , but to date, no studies have looked at the more immediate impacts of childhood deprivation. It has been assumed that early and/or chronic adversity would have a deleterious effect on telomere length. The health of telomere appears to be determined by the their brightness and length. Long size of telomeres are associated with longevity. Diet, physical activity, stress and yoga pranayam may also influence the biology and function of telomeres. Since Mediterranean diet rich in w-3 fatty acids and low in w-6 fatty acids can decrease mortality due to noncommunicables diseases, this poses the possibility that this diet may also enhance the size and brightness of telomeres.Populations living in Mediterranean countries and Japan may have more length of telomeres compared to other populations with lower life expectancy.\nRB Singh, Fabien De Meester,Agnieska Wilczynska; The Tism Tsoum Institute,Krakow, Poland
Avatar of: Douglas Easton

Douglas Easton

Posts: 32

May 18, 2011

The design of the study reminds me of Nazi medical research. These children have no way of giving informed consent to be included in the study. The ressearchers made decisions about the fate of these children rather than the institution and fostering program who have the fiduciary responsibility for the health and welfare of the children. The researchers already suspected that there would be an effect on telomere length. Looking at the literature there is ample evidence that adverse treatment (poor diet and stress) affect telomere length and that shortened telomeres are associated with a number of conditions that adversely affect life span. These facts suggest that the researcers, using their own criteria, subjected children to known risks in order to put a finer point on what we know about the adverse effects of institutionalization on young children. This might seem to be a moot point since not all the chidren will be going to foster homes anyway. However it erodes the decision making process in favor of researchers who may or may not be concerned about the welfare of their soubjects. A retrospective study would be strong enough and to me less morally depraved.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 18, 2011

I was orphaned from the age of 2-5 Brooklyn NY, at which time YES although I was spoiled being the youngest, I experienced major stress, just from being separated from all of my family. I still remember pooping my pants upon entry. The first day, while i was potty trained fully. So noooooo more discussion the possibility of bad treatment. It was a blessed place, loving, however I cried myself to sleep every night. I saw monsters every night coming out of the ceiling, being introduced to fear. Fear incurred from the loss of family. I do fully understand psychology haveing been allowed to raise children, and not exposing them to fear, so yes it is decided that the telomeres of orphaned children will be shorter! It produces a lifelong malady that can no way be reversed, as life at an early age has told you that you are to be harmed. At the orphanage, being the most spoiled, and loved, the center of attention being the youngest there I thought always "I wonder if God likes to hurt people." For to me he had power to protect, yet he permits harm to me. No doubt these are the feelings of other orphans. What parent having opportunity to protect their child from harm is unwilling to do so? Oh well maybe some who have had major psychological disturbances. But no normal parent will allow such harm to their child. So to me God was as a parent who allows harm. No amount of counseling can replace what is lost due to abandonment before the age of 5. Only being allowed to raise children and being allowed to protect them, can replace what one was denied. Lucky for me when as an adult I got on my knees to pray, God poured his spirit over me, so that I sobbed my eyes out knowing he loved me, every day. And luckily for me I was able to portray that love to my children, and was by that healed of the wounds.

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Mirus Bio
Mirus Bio
Advertisement
Life Technologies