Fixing a neglected brain

Scientists used to believe that the adult brain was rigid. But recent evidence shows it remains capable of generating new cells and circuitry
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How to stimulate rejuvenation in the adult brain is one of the key questions facing neuroscientists.

Scientists used to believe that the adult brain was rigid. But recent evidence shows it remains capable of generating new cells and circuitry

Editor's Note: Whether physical or emotional, benign or malicious, neglect alters the developing brain's architecture and circuitry in profound ways that often lead to physical and behavioral problems throughout life. In Part 3 of our series on The Neglected Brain we look at the surprising capacity of the adult brain to overcome childhood neglect. Read Part 1Part 2. Part 3 and Part 4.

Adolescence is a time when the human brain becomes increasingly sophisticated, a time when we are learning to control impulses, plan ahead, behave responsibly. "Self-regulation in early adolescence is stronger than it had been in childhood, but is still somewhat tenuous and easily disrupted,” writes Dr. Laurence Steinberg in his new book Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, is a leading expert on the adolescent stage of human development. "During the second half of adolescence, self-control gradually becomes governed by a well-coordinated network of brain regions, which is helpful when we face a demanding task or distracting background conditions and we need additional brainpower."

Danielle Goodwin grew up with distracting — and often dangerous — background conditions. In fact, the combination of neglect and abuse that she experienced as a child predisposed her to a deeply troubled adolescence and young adulthood. Her method of coping with the chaos, of soothing herself, was to escape into drugs, which triggered the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter whose dominion over the brain’s reward and pleasure centers gave Danielle the kind of pleasure that her human relationships rarely delivered.

Danielle was never parented. She grew up with a drug addicted mother. She never knew her biological father, but men — her mother's shady boyfriends — paraded through her childhood. "We were often hungry," she recalls. "My mom would be gone for days and she'd leave us in strange places." Danielle and her five siblings were so needy they’d cling to their mother whenever she was around, even gathering on the bathroom floor while she took a bath. "Anytime my mom was home and sober," says Danielle, "we would follow her anywhere she went, and just cherish those moments."

When Danielle was 11, her mother met a biker from Calgary and moved with him to Canada, taking the children with her. Her mother liked to go out drinking, and in Calgary she started bringing a dolled-up, underage Danielle along. The biker didn't like having his girlfriend’s kids around, and when the relationship inevitably soured, the family headed back to Montana.

Upon their return, Danielle’s mother reconnected with an ex- who had just been released from prison. He'd been serving time for statutory rape. The boyfriend would leer at Danielle and touch her butt. "He's weird," she remembers telling her mom.

Danielle was just 14 when her mother was sent off to rehab for 30 days. While her mother was gone, the boyfriend continued to come around and drink with Danielle. One night he raped her. She got pregnant — and also blamed. She ended up running away, first to Spokane and then to Seattle, where she was taken in by an older woman.

To earn her keep, the woman encouraged Danielle to have sex with adult men in exchange for drugs and money. When Danielle’s mother arrived in Seattle, she crashed there too, eventually getting them both kicked out. Danielle wound up in a dirty hotel in Pioneer Square, high on crack and nine months pregnant.

She was on a "date" when she felt the first pangs of labor. Young and inexperienced, she didn't know what was happening. Her mother called 911, and paramedics took Danielle to the UW hospital, where she gave birth to a baby girl. While she was recuperating from the delivery — and her newborn was detoxing from the crack — a social worker asked her, "Are you ready to change your life?"

State law requires social workers, educators, police officers, healthcare workers and other professionals step in whenever they suspect that a child has been the victim of abuse or neglect. But once they intervene, then what?

Dr. Eric Trupin, director of the University of Washington's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, helped establish the university’s Evidence-Based Practices Institute. The institute was created by state law (House Bill 1088) in 2007. Part of its mandate was to compile a database of interventions that work — and don’t work — when it comes to helping kids and families recover from neglect and abuse.

"What's so clear in the research is that there are biological, neurological or brain chemistry consequences to the way in which a child is managed or treated," says Trupin. "The nice thing is that [the consequences are] not immutable. We have a body of evidence that shows you can bring about change." That change, says Trupin, depends on schooling professionals about which interventions are effective, then making sure those interventions are available to children and their families. "We really need to increase access [for kids and families],” he says, “and train the professional workforce in these skills."

A poster child for parental neglect

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About the Authors & Contributors

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie