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How Early Social Deprivation Impairs Long-Term Cognitive Function

By Manabu Makinodan, MD, PhD

via Science Daily - 9/13/2012

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/news/isolation.htm

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        This news item adds credibility to the premise in this site that early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse ("trauma") often impairs the psycho-social development of (wounds) young kids. See my comments after the art5icle. The hilights below are mine. - Peter Gerlach, MSW

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This story is reprinted from materials provided by Boston Children's Hospital, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 13, 2012)A growing body of research shows that children who suffer severe neglect and social isolation have cognitive and social impairments as adults. A study from Boston Children's Hospital shows, for the first time, how these functional impairments arise: Social isolation during early life prevents the cells that make up the brain's white matter from maturing and producing the right amount of myelin, the fatty "insulation" on nerve fibers that helps them transmit long-distance messages within the brain.

The study also identifies a molecular pathway that is involved in these abnormalities, showing it is disrupted by social isolation and suggesting it could potentially be targeted with drugs. Finally, the research indicates that the timing of social deprivation is an important factor in causing impairment. The findings are reported in the Sept. 14 (2012) issue of the journal Science.

The researchers, led by Gabriel Corfas, PhD, and Manabu Makinodan, MD, PhD, both of the F. M . Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children's Hospital, modeled social deprivation in mice by putting them in isolation for two weeks.

When isolation occurred during a "critical period," starting three weeks after birth, cells called oligodendrocytes failed to mature in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for cognitive function and social behavior. As a result, nerve fibers had thinner coatings of myelin, which is produced by oligodendrocytes, and the mice showed impairments in social interaction and working memory.

Studies of children raised in institutions where neglect was rampant, including another recent study from Boston Children's Hospital, have found changes in white matter in the prefrontal cortex, but the mechanism for the changes hasn't been clear. The new study adds to a growing body of evidence that so-called glial cells, including oligodendrocytes, do more than just support neurons, but rather participate actively in setting up the brain's circuitry as they receive input from the environment.

"In general, the thinking has been that experience shapes the brain by influencing neurons," explains Corfas, the study's team leader and senior investigator, who also holds an appointment in the Departments of Neurology and Otolaryngology at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "We are showing that glial cells are also influenced by experience, and that this is an essential step in establishing normal, mature neuronal circuits. Our findings provide a cellular and molecular context to understand the consequences of social isolation."

Myelin is essential in boosting the speed and efficiency of communication between different areas of the brain, so the decreased myelination may explain the social and cognitive deficits in the mice. Corfas has previously shown that abnormal myelination alters dopaminergic signaling in the brain, which could provide an alternative explanation for the findings.

The new study also showed that effects of social isolation are timing-dependent. If mice were isolated during a specific period in their development, they failed to recover functioning even when they were put back in a social environment. Conversely, if mice were put in isolation after this so-called critical period, they remained normal.

Finally, Corfas and colleagues identified a molecular signaling pathway through which social isolation leads to abnormal myelination. The brains of socially isolated mice had less neuregulin-1 (NRG1), a protein essential to the development of the nervous system. Furthermore, when the team eliminated an NRG1 receptor known as ErbB3 from oligodendrocytes, the effect was the same as being in isolation -- myelination and behavior were abnormal even when the mice were in a stimulating, social environment.

"These observations indicate that the mechanisms we found are necessary for the brain to 'benefit' from early social experience," says Corfas.

The Corfas lab is now investigating drugs that might stimulate myelin growth by targeting NRG1, ErbB3 or related pathways. "Having both too much and too little myelination is bad," Corfas cautions. "This is a pathway that requires very careful regulation."

A number of neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and mood disorders have been linked to pathologic changes in white matter and myelination, and to disturbances in the NRG1-ErbB signaling pathway, Corfas notes. Thus, the findings of this study may offer a new approach to these disorders.

Manabu Makinodan, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Corfas' lab, was first author on the paper. The study was funded by the NIH, the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke of the NIH.


        Several things are worth noting about this summary. The first is this article doesn't define "social isolation (of young children)." Does that mean "no social contact with other living things at all", or "no emotional and physical contact with caring adults"? Many children are raised by adults who are too wounded, busy, or distracted to nurture them consistently.

        Such kids may get fed, clothed, housed, and educated, but get little or no consistent loving attention, praise, encouragement, and guidance from their adults. They may have family relationships and school friends, but they are psychologically neglected and developmentally abandoned. This Boston report adds to the probability that such deprived kids are neurologically, psychologically, and socially damaged long term.

        This Web site calls such handicapped adults Grown Wounded Children  (GWCs). Many neglected and abandoned kids are shame and fear- based, and tend to isolate themselves from others (loners), starting in childhood.

        Secondly, this research by reputable scientists raises the usual question about whether psycho-social brain development in mice is reliably indicative of human development. If the neurobiology in mice and human brains are cellularly and chemically similar, then perhaps it is reliable. If it is, this study seems to document that kids' early family and social environment can significantly affect their brain (and personality) development, and later life.

        Thirdly, the Boston Hospital research made no attempt to identify the circumstances that cause "social isolation" in young kids. Healthy parenting adults automatically encourage nourishing social contact with and for their children. Psychologically-wounded parents (GWCs) may not do this.

        Fourthly, this research summary made no speculation about the typical developmental window of time that human kids are vulnerable to significant- isolation impacts. This raises the question about whether current parenting-education materials and programs offer accurate information about guarding young kids against this vulnerability.  

        Finally, this study does not stand alone. It is part of "a growing body of (scientific) research" that suggests early-childhood family environments can have major negative long-term effects on the development, behavior, health, and longevity of individuals. 

        Self-improvement Lesson 1 in this Web site is about identifying and reducing psychological wounds from early-childhood trauma. The other Lessons  are about preventing these wounds. - PKG

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      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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