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Neglected Tots: Brain Hormones Lowered

Hormones Linked to Social Bonding, but Healthy Relationships Still Possible
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WebMD Health News

Nov. 21, 2005 -- Neglected babies may have lower levels of brain hormones tied to social bonding.

But those children can still develop satisfying relationships, researchers stress.

"It's extremely important that people don't think this work implies that these children are somehow permanently delayed," says researcher Seth Pollak, PhD, in a news release.

"All we are saying is that in the case of some social problems, here is a window into understanding the biological basis for why [those problems] happen and how we might design treatments," he continues.

Pollak is an associate professor of psychology, psychiatry, and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He's also a researcher at the university's Waisman Center for Human Development.

The study appears in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

Orphans Tested

The study included two small groups of children.

One group consisted of 18 children who had spent the first 16 months of their lives, on average, in overseas orphanages before being adopted by U.S. families.

The adopted kids had lived in typical American homes for about three years. They had been tested for fetal alcohol exposure, birth defects, and developmental disabilities.

The second group included 21 American children who were being raised by their biological parents in similar settings.

The researchers compared levels of two brain hormones -- oxytocin and vasopressin -- which are involved in social bonding.

Play Time With Mom

For the study, the kids played interactive computer games while sitting in the lap of their mother or a woman they didn't know.

The game included light physical contact, like counting fingers or whispering in the partner's ear. Afterwards, the kids provided urine samples, which were checked for oxytocin and vasopressin.

After physical contact with their moms, oxytocin levels rose for children living with their biological parents. The same wasn't true for children who had been neglected early in life.

Formerly neglected kids also had lower overall levels of vasopressin, the researchers note.

No hormonal differences were seen between the two groups after the kids played the computer game with unfamiliar women.

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