The human brain requires a wide variety of experiences and environmental inputs in order to develop normally. Children who are neglected by caregivers or raised in institutional environments are deprived of numerous types of species-expectant environmental experiences. In this review, we articulate a model of how the absence of cognitive stimulation and sensory, motor, linguistic, and social experiences common among children raised in deprived early environments constrains early forms of learning, producing long-term deficits in complex cognitive function and associative learning. Building on evidence from animal models, we propose that deprivation accelerates the neurodevelopmental process of synaptic pruning and limits myelination, resulting in age-specific reductions in cortical thickness and white matter integrity among children raised in deprived early environments. We review evidence linking early experiences of psychosocial deprivation to reductions in cognitive ability, associative and implicit learning, language skills, and executive functions as well as atypical patterns of cortical and white matter development-domains that should be profoundly influenced by deprivation through the learning and neural mechanisms we propose. These patterns of atypical development are difficult to explain with existing models that emphasize stress pathways and accelerated limbic system development. A learning account of how deprived early environments influence cognitive and neural development provides a complementary perspective to stress models and highlights novel pathways through which deprivation might confer risk for internalizing and externalizing psychopathology. We end by reviewing evidence for plasticity in cognitive and neural development among children raised in deprived environments following interventions that improve caregiving quality.
Keywords: Brain development; Childhood adversity; Deprivation; Early life stress; Learning; Neglect.
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