by Cheryl Jackson Friday March 27, 2009

I'm reading the research for our next episode of Your Voice, and it's harrowing.   We're talking about "toxic stress" - stress that is so intense that it scars a person for life.  

One of our guests will be Professor Charles Nelson of the Harvard Medical School.  He and some colleagues studied the Romanian orphans.  You remember them.  Thousands of children were abandoned by their parents and left in orphanages. Nelson wanted to find out how the stress of their early lives affected them later.

In describing the situation to Radio National's "The Health Report" , he said,  "there might be 15 or 20 babies between say 6 and 12 months, and there'd be one caregiver out in the hall.  And the room has all-white walls, white ceiling and all-white cribs. So there's no stimulation, there's no care-giving per se.  By the time these kids hit about a year, you see routine stereotopies.  Most of them are just rocking in their cribs.  Once they start walking, they'll be in their rooms, and they'll just be bracking up and down, or sometimes hitting their heads against the wall.  Nutrition isn't an issue, we've had kids with profound growth retardation whose nutritional needs are perfectly adequate."

Nelson and his team found that those institutionalized children have delays in most developmental domains, including physical growth and cognitive, lingistic and emotional development.  They experience difficulty regulating attention and emotions, and they have trouble reading social situations.   Not only that, their brains are different.  This is yet one more case of brain plasticity, where the brain changes to adapt to its environment.

This is frightening.    When is stress so toxic, that it changes the brain?    Can it be reversed?  If so, when and how?    

I'll ask Dr. Nelson when he joins us for "Toxic Stress."