There’s a heartbreaking photo in the office of Charles A. Nelson, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH).
A little girl stands alone in a Romanian orphanage, sucking on a rattle and staring at the camera. “She'd wet her pants and was crying and crying,” Nelson recalls. “No one was paying attention to her. They said, ‘Her mother abandoned her this morning, and she’s been like that all day.’ Their policy was to completely ignore her because that will extinguish the crying.”
Sadly, Nelson has met many forlorn children like this while studying the impact of adverse early experiences—extreme deprivation, neglect, and toxic stress, for example—on brain development. These experiences can hamper a young person’s learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. Nelson, who is research director of the Division of Developmental Medicine at BCH and an HMS professor of pediatrics and psychology, has conducted research from Boston to Brazil to Bangladesh that has illuminated critical periods in neural development when interventions are most needed.