LONDON (AP) — Romanian children adopted from overcrowded orphanages in the 1990s were more likely to suffer psychological problems as adults compared to other children taken in by British families, according to a decades-long study.
Doctors say the findings suggest there is a critical window when young brains develop that may determine someone's future mental health, and that some problems might not be fixable later.
"These kids came to the U.K. in desperate conditions, very malnourished and very stunted in growth," said Edmund Sonuga-Barke of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, the study's lead author. "Despite the families' absolute investment in the children, a good proportion of them still have significant problems as adults."
The researchers tracked more than 160 Romanian infants to 3-year-olds adopted by British families in the 1990s. The children were checked periodically with questionnaires, IQ tests and interviews, with the latest assessment done at ages 22 to 25.
Sonuga-Barke and colleagues looked for conditions including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, symptoms of autism including poor communication and social skills, and emotional issues such as anxiety and depression. The results from the Romanians were compared with those from 52 children adopted within the United Kingdom.
The Romanian children who spent more than six months in the institutions seemed to fare the worst. Sonuga-Barke said that children who were in the orphanages for longer than six months were seven times more likely to have ADHD when compared to children adopted in Britain.
Of the 107 Romanians included in the latest assessment, 25 had ADHD versus one of the 38 British children. A dozen of the Romanians met the criteria for autism, compared with one of the British children.
The study was published online Wednesday in the journal, Lancet.
"This shows that children exposed to adversity, even for short periods, can have long-lasting effects, which is quite sobering," said Frank Verhulst of Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, who was not part of the research. He said some of the anti-social tendencies seen in some of these children and adults might have been coping mechanisms.
"That kind of behavior was maybe necessary in surroundings where you have to steal and fight and lie to stay alive," he said.
The crowded and squalid conditions of the Romanian orphanages were exposed after the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaseuscu in 1989. Some 100,000 children were found in the institutions; many were the result of his ban on abortion and birth control. Several thousand were later adopted by foreigners.
Charles Nelson of Harvard University, who has studied Romanian orphans adopted in the U.S., said the results have implications for the millions of children around the world living in appalling circumstances.
"We cannot let them languish in such environments for very long," he said in an email. But he said experts should recognize that "simply placing children into good homes is not enough" to erase the effects of previous trauma.
Still, Sonuga-Barke noted that not everyone was similarly affected.
After spending the first two and a half years of her life in a Romanian orphanage, Ionica Adriana Calvert was adopted by a British couple in North Yorkshire. Her mother described the institution as a morgue because none of the children cried.
"I was quite skinny, really dehydrated and didn't really speak," Calvert said.
At 28, Calvert is now a London-based actress and describes herself as "pretty normal."
"I had a good upbringing and always loved school and had a really good circle of friends, so maybe that helped," she said.
Calvert said her father noticed something about her at the orphanage that suggested she might be resilient.
"He said I had really sparkly eyes and smiled," she said. "None of the other kids smiled."