May 30, 2011

Neurochemistry and the Adopted Child

Karyn Purvis, a professor at TCU and the author of The Connected Child, discusses how children’s brain neurochemistry can be negatively changed due to early life experiences, causing the child to have learning, social, and behavioral issues. Neurochemicals are the chemicals in the brain that send signals. So if the brain is not sending the right signals this can affect the brain directly as well as the child’s behavior.

There are six major risk factors to a child’s healthy brain development:

  • Difficult pregnancy:
    This can include drugs, alcohol, and a mother’s dealing with stressful situations.
  • Difficult birth:
    If the mother had a prolonged labor in which child was removed harshly by forceps, this can cause bleeding in capillaries in brain.
  • Early hospitalization:
    Usually an infant will have received less touch, disrupted time with mother, painful procedures, and overstimulation due to medical equipment and procedures. This can be experienced as neglect by the infant and the overstimulation can result in impaired sensory response.
  • Abuse:
    A child who is hit or shaken cannot express self and also can become hyper-vigilant about danger.
  • Neglect:
    If a child’s needs -- such as getting food when hungry -- are not met, the child then learns not to trust.
  • Trauma:
    If a child is injured or views someone else being injured in an accident, the child can develop PTSD because the world is uncertain.

These risk factors can cause even a very wanted and welcomed child to have problems due to a mother’s having stress during pregnancy. If during a pregnancy a mother achieved a much sought after goal — a degree, a new home, starting a business — these accomplishments usually mean that the mom was experiencing some level of stress.

Of course, for many of our adopted children, even those who have come to us as newborn infants, they most likely were in a prenatal environment in which their neurochemistry could have been altered due to the birth mother’s stressful environment. The circumstances that often lead a woman to choose adoption are usually difficult.

For a child who has been adopted internationally, chances are the birthmother was stressed during the pregnancy; in addition, the child’s first days were probably bleaker — little holding, rocking and warm milk given based on hunger. Then most likely the child was also neglected. It may not have been profound neglect. Food may have been available, but the child could only eat at certain hours. There was a caretaker to bathe and change clothes, but that woman was probably there for one shift until the next person took over to care for 10 other children as well.

When a child experiences one of the risk factors listed above, the child can then have abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters such as or cortisol, PEA and glutamate, which are excitatory neurochemicals. Then the child’s dopamine, which promotes fluid body movement, enhances memory and cognition and provides joy and pleasure, can be out of the normal range. In addition, GABA and serotonin, which are the calming neurotransmitters, may be lowered.

So a child needs proper levels of these neurotransmitters, and if the levels are off, this can impact healthy brain development and plasticity. For example, cortisol, which usually goes up with stress, provides energy for thinking and stamina for dealing with stress or a crisis. This neurotransmitter allows the child to be able to sense and respond to the environment. Fortunately, for the average person, cortisol rises about 30 minutes before awakening to provide energy for the day’s activity. It then subsides and diminishes before bedtime. Cortisol also enhances learning and memory, but prolonged stress with elevated cortisol can decrease a child’s ability to think and memorize. And these elevated levels can lead to emotional and behavioral problems.

If Serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter. is decreased, the child can become hopeless and depressed and also may have insomnia. It is no wonder there are children who appear depressed, even at a tender age.

We are all familiar with histamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, which is associated with allergies –but it also associated with attention and alertness. An abnormal increase in histamine can cause allergies as well as behavioral problems.

The brain has a plasticity in which it is affected by abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, leading to change in brain functions. An increase in one neurotransmitter can then impact the level of other neurotransmitters, exacerbating the problem.

Fortunately, as a child’s environment changes and the neurotransmitter levels become normal, the child’s behavior changes, further changing the brain chemistry. This then affects the brain structure and operation, helping the brain, which is malleable, to then return to a more normal state.

What can parents do to change the child’s brain chemistry?

One simple way that all parents can help their children is by improving their children’s diets. We all need the right balance of omega-3 fatty acids — and not just to prevent heart disease. Also, blood sugar levels should be kept as constant as possible. After all, most of us get grumpy when we get hungry. Provide your child meals/snacks every 2 hours. See that your child has enough protein throughout the day for alertness. Instead of giving your child the usual white grains, give them complex carbohydrates (the good whole grains) to promote calmness.

Trust is key to helping your child change their brain chemistry. Mostly likely your child’s world was an unsafe place. To encourage your child to trust, you can show lots of affection and emotional warmth. Be sensitive to your child’s tolerance of noise, physical touch, body distance, smells, etc. When talking to your child, use simple and concrete words; repeat words slowly — no long lectures.

One way that children were able to keep themselves safe was through hyper-vigilance. This is a survival skill that may have kept your child alive. Watch to see if your child is hyper-vigilant: clues include having a rapid heartbeat and enlarged or smaller pupils. Be attuned to your child going into such a mode and see if there is a way to alleviate your child’s fear. Is there a sudden change in plans? Is your child near a new person that is making your child nervous?

Keep your child’s environment predictable. Tell your child what is about to happen as events progress. Be approachable: go down to child’s height; enter your child’s space gently. Warn the child of any changes (e.g., we are going to go play outside now). Give your child a “heads-up” about where you are taking the child and what to expect. Try to keep environment calm and not too stimulating, but adjust it according to your child’s needs. Some parents say that their child can actually enjoy a more stimulating environment.

Some parents have their children’s neurochemistry tested through the saliva and urine. Getting saliva samples is actually more difficult than have blood drawn or getting a urine sample. There are neurotransmitter supplements that can be given under the guidance of a medical expert because although they are supplements, they impact brain chemistry. Some children have reacted very strongly (both negatively and positively) to these supplements, so this is not an intervention that you approach willy-nilly. Although changing a child’s neurochemistry can help a child break the cycle of behavioral problems, the supplements do not get to the root cause of why the brain chemistry is off balance. Ultimately, it is only through loving interventions that children learn to trust and the brain chemistry associated with fear is changed.

For more information about brain chemistry, go to

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