What was learned from studying the effects of early institutional deprivation

Megan R. Gunnar, Maya Bowen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The effect of experiences in infancy on human development is a central question in developmental science. Children raised in orphanage-like institutions for their first year or so of life and then adopted into well-resourced and supportive families provide a lens on the long-term effects of early deprivation and the capacity of children to recover from this type of early adversity. While it is challenging to identify cause-and-effect relations in the study of previously institutionalized individuals, finding results that are consistent with animal experimental studies and the one randomized study of removal from institutional care support the conclusion that many of the outcomes for these children were induced by early institutional deprivation. This review examines the behavioral and neural evidence for altered executive function, declarative memory, affective disorders, reward processing, reactivity to threat, risk-taking and sensation-seeking. We then provide a brief overview of the neurobiological mechanisms that may transduce early institutional experiences into effects on brain and behavior. In addition, we discuss implications for policy and practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number173272
JournalPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior
StatePublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This review was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health , USA, [ R01 HD095904 ] to Dr. Gunnar.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021


  • Adoption and fostering
  • Early deprivation
  • Institutional care
  • Stress


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