Deprived children – old beyond their years?
Children who spend more time in institutional care have shorter telomeres, caps on the end of chromosomes that are eroded with age, according to a study published this week in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry.
Every time a cell divides, the genetic sequences at the end of chromosomes are shortened, eventually giving the signal for the cell to stop multiplying at the end of its lifetime.
Previous work in adults has shown that this process can be accelerated by psychological stress. This new study is the first to show that children in orphanages have changes to their genetics by the age of four that could influence their health for life.
"The longer kids spend in an institution, the shorter the telomeres" explains Dr Charles Nelson, an author of the study.
These results come as part of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a study by US scientists comparing Romanian children who have grown up in institutions to those who have received foster care that was arranged as part of the project.
The poverty and oppression during the rule of Ceaucescu in Romania left behind a terrible legacy: thousands of children abandoned in poorly funded state-run institutions. Although the situation is improving, scientists wanted to find out if institutionalisation can impact the health of children.
Telomere shortening could be a mechanism by which psychological stress is damaging to health.
"Our prediction would be that children with shortened telomeres are the ones with the most compromised health outcomes."
Dr Nelson hopes that their results will change the way abandoned children are cared for across the world. "The storyline is that institutional care is very bad for kids, and that the sooner you get them out of the institution the better off they are."
Dr Charles Nelson from Children's Hospital Boston explains how children who spend more time in institutional care have shorter telomeres: