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Adversity & the Developing Brain In 2000, Dr. Charles Nelson’s pivotal study of Romanian orphans revealed a tangible mark that childhood neglect can leave on a brain: The orphans had less grey and white brain matter, vital to attention and language, when compared to children raised by biological families. The mark persisted 16 years later, sparking curiosity nationwide. Dr. Nelson continues to study the effects of adversity—in Boston and abroad.

In the slums of Dhaka, Bangledesh, Charles Nelson, PhD, is evaluating 300 Dhaka children, specifically with stunted growth and malnutrition, for cognitive and behavioral effects of neglect. Unlike the severely neglected Romanian orphans, the Dhaka children live with their biological parents, but they experience similar adversities: poor sanitation, environmental toxins, malnourishment, maternal depression and more. So far, Dr. Nelson and his team have evaluated twelve Dhaka children at 2-3 months old, and over 130 Dhaka children at 36 months old. The results of the 2- and 3-month-old children mirror that of the Romanian orphans: smaller volumes of grey and white matter. While it’s too early to determine the specifically affected regions of the brain, it’s remarkable for differences in brain activity to present at such a young age. Of the 36-month-olds, the same distinct

Dhaka, Bangladesh children

patterns appeared. A significant picture is being drawn about the effects of adversity of brain development—but, the type of adversity seems to matter. The Dhaka children show stronger activity in areas correlated with problem solving and communication between brain regions—an area where Romanian children tended to have weak activity. This could relate to the different types of adversity faced by children in Dhaka versus Romania; hypothetically, the type of adversity experienced could affect brain development differently.


The Dhaka children tested at 36 months are now 5 years old. These children will soon be tested for follow-up measurements to analyze their brain development. They’ll

In Boston

also be tested for IQ and school-readiness, so Dr. Nelson

Dr. Nelson and his team study

and his team can further analyze whether the results of their

Boston-area children raised in

36-month-old scan (showing less gray and white matter) was predictive of their school performance.

low-income and uneducated households. The team evaluates the children at 2, 6 and 12 months old for brain activity and presence of a stress biomarker found in urine. At each visit, the mothers also complete a questionnaire to

The bottom line: Early childhood experience has a powerful

gauge their personal stress level

role on a child’s developing brain—a role we’re only now

and interactions with their child.

beginning to fully understand. The results so far:

Dr. Nelson hopes his work will ultimately discover which forms of adversity are responsible for specific differences in a

The more stress the mother feels, the more elevated the

child’s brain development. This work is vitally important; a

child’s stress biomarker.

child’s brain appears to be forever altered when faced with adversity at a young age. Dr. Nelson hopes to one day create interventions to help at-risk, high-adversity children develop

Children of high-stress mothers show a reduction in

properly—providing these children with the greatest potential

brain electrical activity.

to thrive. 

12-month-old children whose mothers report few verbal exchanges with the child have reduced language abilities.

The study presents another strong correlation to adversity—stress— and a child’s brain development.

Bathel writing sample brain  
Bathel writing sample brain  
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