Associations between early life adversity and executive function in children adopted internationally from orphanages

Camelia E. Hostinar, Sarah A. Stellern, Catherine Schaefer, Stephanie M Carlson, Megan R Gunnar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

148 Scopus citations


Executive function (EF) abilities are increasingly recognized as an important protective factor for children experiencing adversity, promoting better stress and emotion regulation as well as social and academic adjustment. We provide evidence that early life adversity is associated with significant reductions in EF performance on a developmentally sensitive battery of laboratory EF tasks that measured cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. Animal models also suggest that early adversity has a negative impact on the development of prefrontal cortex-based cognitive functions. In this study, we report EF performance 1 y after adoption in 2.5- to 4-y-old children who had experienced institutional care in orphanages overseas compared with a group of age-matched nonadopted children. To our knowledge, this is the youngest age and the soonest after adoption that reduced EF performance has been shown using laboratory measures in this population. EF reductions in performance were significant above and beyond differences in intelligence quotient. Within the adopted sample, current EF was associated with measures of early deprivation after controlling for intelligence quotient, with less time spent in the birth family before placement in an institution and lower quality of physical/social care in institutions predicting poorer performance on the EF battery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17208-17212
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue numberSUPPL.2
StatePublished - Oct 16 2012


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