How a deprived childhood leaves its mark on the brain

When "Mr Mason" was 14, he and his drug addict mother burgled a house and stabbed the owner's dog to death.

Since then he has put his stepfather in a coma and been charged with a double shooting, but escaped from jail before the case could come to trial.

Mr Mason is among the most violent and disturbed children in Britain – regarded by the public as antisocial and feral. But now Britain's neuroscientists are to study the brains of children like him in an attempt to prove that, rather than simply being "bad", the wiring of these children's brains has been affected by their abuse or neglect as toddlers.

The £1.6m research project commissioned by Kids Company, the children's charity, hopes to establish that over-exposure to fright hormones damages children's brain development and leaves them prone to violent outbursts and unable to calm themselves.

The ambitious project, involving academics from the Institute of Psychiatry, University College London, the Anna Freud Centre, University of Oxford and the Tavistock Clinic, will use brain scans to show which bits of troubled children's brains are overactive and which are under-used. It will also examine the impact of providing surrogate parenting and loving care to children who have been neglected to see if children's brains can adapt to make them less prone to violence.

The charity hopes the research will lead to a shift in the way vulnerable children are supported. They have launched a massive fundraising campaign to invite the public to each donate £5 to buy a virtual neuron in a one-million neuron virtual brain.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the chief executive of Kids Company, commissioned the research after noticing that many of the most troubled young people actually calmed themselves by committing violent acts. She believes that this paradoxical effect may be a learnt pattern of behaviour which children adopt to help them deal with their own experiences as victims of violence.

Ms Batmanghelidjh said: "Most of us are only programmed to be frightened for short periods without getting some relief. But the 1.5 million children who are abused and neglected every year in the UK are actually being frightened chronically without rest or relief. The consequence is often disturbed behaviours and violence.

"If the maltreatment of children is altering their developmental pathways then we are not dealing with children who are morally flawed. The public perception is that these children are just like anyone else until they come to the point of doing something bad. Then the public decides these children have made a thought-through decision, when the vast majority will not have thought at all – their violence was almost instinctive."

"At the moment, the most violent children are described as criminals and dealt with in custody. But custody has a 80 per cent reoffending rate – the system is not working. The moral difficulty I have is that the punishment is carried by the child for what is an adverse environment created by adults. Because we are so ready to make moral judgments about these children we have not risen to the point of finding a meaningful solution."

She argues that allowances should be made for these children, and that troubled children's complex emotional deficiencies can be addressed by applying the care and warmth that has previously been missing in their lives. Neurological research suggests that the human brain can develop a "soothing repertoire" until it is about 27 years old. That's what Kids Company sets out to do by providing intensive support for 14,000 children and young people through its centres and its work in 38 schools. It believes radical action is required to disrupt the cycle of abuse from affecting society.

Professor Peter Fonagy, chief executive of the Anna Freud Centre and head of the Department of Clinical Educational and Health Psychology at University College London, who will lead part of the research, said: "The problem is immense. I want to work with Kids Company to try and help them identify what it is they can do more of that will make the precious resources they have go further."

Neuroscience has played an increasingly influential role in public policy-making. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary who formulated much Tory social policy, has championed the link between childhood neglect and its effects on the development of children's brains.

The Centre for Social Justice, the think tank set up by Mr Duncan Smith, argued the need for early intervention in troubled children's lives, warning of the damage being done to their brain development by their neglectful upbringings.

But Professor Raymond Tallis, the philosopher and former doctor, is sceptical. He said: "I do not think brain scans will add anything to what we already know. The trouble is that that leads to a general sort of claim that 'My brain made me do it'. The neuro-mitigation of blame has to be treated with suspicion. I think compassion comes from understanding someone's background. I don't think we need to see someone's brain scan to do that."

The effects of neglect on the brain

On the left is an image from a healthy three-year-old. The image on the right is from a three-year-old who suffered severe sensory deprivation with minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions. This child's brain is smaller, has enlarged ventricles [holes in the centre of the brain] and shows signs of cortical atrophy – shrinkage of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. The brain grows in size and complexity in response to the quantity and quality of sensory experience.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence