November 21, 2005
Neglected Orphanage Babies Have Lower Vasopressin And Oxytocin

Kids from Russian and Romanian orphanages have lower levels of hormones involved in bonding.

Crucial to making the link between social behavior and hormones was the work of co-author Toni Ziegler, an endocrinologist at the UW-Madison National Primate Research Center, who developed a technique that enables researchers to track vasopressin and oxytocin levels through the analysis of urine. The procedure is far less invasive than the existing method of analyzing blood or cerebrospinal fluid, and may one day find applications in several areas of child research such as the field of autism, Ziegler says.

The UW-Madison scientists worked with 18 four-year-old children who had lived in Russian and Romanian orphanages before being adopted into homes in the Milwaukee area. Despite the fact that the children now live in stable homes - for over three years, in some cases - they might still display some of the telltale behaviors that researchers have come to associate with early neglect. The abnormal willingness of a child to seek comfort from unfamiliar adults, even in the presence of the adopted parent, is one common instance of such behavior, says Wismer Fries.

Before starting her experiment, Wismer Fries collected urine samples from the young subjects to track baseline levels of vasopressin and oxytocin. Immediately, the scientists noticed that the children who experienced early neglect had markedly lower levels of vasopressin than the control group of non-adopted children. Researchers believe that vasopressin is essential for recognizing individuals in a familiar social environment. Lower levels of the hormone, Pollak says, may point to the social deprivation these children endured early on.

During the experiment, study subjects sat on the laps of either their mother or an unfamiliar woman and participated in an animated interactive computer game. The 30-minute game directed the children to engage in various types of physical contact with the adult they were sitting with, such as whispering or tickling each other, and patting each other on the head. When the game ended, Wismer Fries collected another urine sample from each child.

The UW-Madison researchers expected to see a hormonal response in the children following the physical contact with their mothers. And predictably, oxytocin levels rose in family-reared subjects. Yet, levels stayed the same among the previously neglected group. That result may help explain the difficulties many of these children have in forming secure relationships, the UW-Madison scientists say.

An obvious long term question needs answering: Do oxytocin and vasopressin levels of neglected kids eventually converge with levels found in normal kids of the neglected kids are adopted into stable homes? What happens after 10 or 15 years? Are these kids permanently tweaked?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 November 21 10:16 PM  Brain Development


Comments
lindenen said at November 22, 2005 12:28 PM:

The more politically explosive question is: do children whose mothers work full-time have lower oxytocin and vasopressin levels than kids raised by stay-at-home moms?

gmoke said at November 22, 2005 12:46 PM:

Check the grown-up kibbutzni kids.

Of course, if oxytocin and vasopressin levels are lower for children of working mothers, the probable response would be to demonize working mothers and provide tax breaks for major corporations. Nobody is gonna call for raising the minimum wage, providing affordable health care, or returning the US economy to the state where the average family can survive on the take-home pay of one adult wage-earner.

"It's Mommie's fault because she went to work" is just too easy an answer.

Engineer-Poet said at November 22, 2005 1:52 PM:

And if you administer more vasopressin and oxytocin, do the kids improve?

A successful treatment for early neglect would be a HUGE advance.

Matthew Cromer said at November 22, 2005 4:06 PM:

. . .And getting married halves your testosterone levels.

Randall Parker said at November 22, 2005 5:09 PM:

gmoke,

I think we should drive up salaries on the bottom by deporting all the illegal aliens and by raising the requirements for legal immigration so that no low skilled people can immigrate to the US. Reduce the supply of labor and the price for it will rise.

Also, I think we should say loudly that poor single women shouldn't have kids. Illegitimacy is the biggest cause of child poverty.

Robert Silvetz said at November 22, 2005 7:06 PM:

I met some of these Romanian kids when I used to live in Boston. They truly were a sad lot. I would be most interested to see how many of them turned into criminals. If you can't bond well, you don't know how to empathize with others, and this denial is necessary to be criminal unto others.

And lindenen is absolutely right -- I find the question warranted -- social interaction at the early age in the family is an essential -- what damage has been done by the inflation and taxation that has driven women to work as part of the 2-wage earner survival strategy?

Heptanitro said at November 24, 2005 2:50 PM:

Why ignore the genetic paradigm? Families genetically deficient in biochemicals that are necessary for bonding transmit this deficiency to their children.

Lisa Greenberg said at November 30, 2005 2:04 PM:

Why ignore the parents? What I would have loved to see is the hormone levels of the adults participating in the scenarios. Is it maybe possible, particularly considering the adoptive parent volunteered herself and the adopted childfor the study, that this study attracted 18 moms who were stressed out over what they percievied as their adopted child's anxieties and inadequacies?

If you measured the oxytocin level of the wife of a "happily married" woman after cuddling with her spouse, and compared it to the oxytocin level of a woman who is silently fuming because she knows her spouse is cheating and it tees her off when he tickles or whispers to her---whose would be higher? And would the fuming wife be considered fatally flawed because her oxytocin didn't rise to the occasion with the cheater?

If you're measuring hormone levels in interactions that have more than one participant, I think you ought to design the study to consider the possibility someone other than the party you predict will be defective may also have some flaws.

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