Can a Romanian orphan give informed consent to be an experimental subject?

This 2015 study used Romanian orphans as lab rats for findings of which I failed to see the value. The world didn’t really need any further research to demonstrate that foster care would be better for a child than staying in an orphanage.

The researchers placed the orphans in five separate stressful situations, and measured their cortisol and DHEA-S levels, along with their electrocardiograph and impedance cardiograph activity. The findings were:

“Children who were removed from the Romanian institutions and placed with foster parents before the age of 24 months had stress system responses similar to those of children being raised by families in the community.

The children raised in institutions showed blunted responses in the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the flight or fight response, and in the HPA axis, which regulates cortisol.”

One unsupported assertion from the researchers was:

“We provide evidence for a causal link between the early caregiving environment and stress response system reactivity in humans with effects that differ markedly from those observed in rodent models.”

The researchers stated that rodent studies have converged to find:

“Early-life adversity results in hyperreactivity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.”

It’s baloney that the same results from early life adversity in rodents haven’t also been present in humans. Even the lead researcher herself said in a news article:

“More significantly, McLaughlin said, their [the orphans] stress response systems might have been initially hyperactive at earlier points in development, then adapted to high levels of stress hormones.”

The difference was that the rodents were monitored 24/7 until researchers killed and dissected them. The children’s periods of adversity likely started while in the womb, and their lives had been monitored for research purposes sporadically after their births.

Everybody knows that just because adverse events and effects in these children’s lives weren’t recorded by researchers didn’t mean these effects weren’t present at some point.

Particularly irksome was another unsupported assertion from the lead reviewer:

“The children involved in the study are now about 16 years old, and researchers next plan to investigate whether puberty has an impact on their stress responses. It could have a positive effect, McLaughlin said, since puberty might represent another sensitive period when stress response systems are particularly tuned to environmental inputs. “It’s possible that the environment during that period could reverse the impacts of early adversity on the system,” she said.”

No, it’s NOT possible. We may as well expect the apple to fall upward.

The impacts of early adversity persist with enduring physiological changes as shown in experimental studies. Studies have NOT provided evidence that the subjects’ environment can cause the effects of complete reversal of all these changes, no matter the stage of life of the subjects.

This point was addressed in The effects of early-life stress are permanent alterations in the child’s brain circuitry and function rodent study:

The current study manipulates the type and timing of a stressor and the specific task and age of testing to parallel early-life stress in humans reared in orphanages.

The results provide evidence of both early and persistent alterations in amygdala circuitry and function following early-life stress.

These effects are not reversed when the stressor is removed nor diminished with the development of prefrontal regulation regions.

That study had the same reviewer as the current study. The current study’s lead researcher knew or should have known of this and other relevant research. She knew or should have known of the irreversibility of critical periods, during which developments either occurred or were forever missed.

That the lead researcher made assertions not supported by the study or relevant research – assertions made counter to her scientific knowledge – showed that there was unease about treating the orphans as lab rats, in my opinion. Was there was some other agenda in play?

In my view, the larger problem was the study’s informed consent with this group of Romanian orphans. If you were in contact with a damaged person, and implicitly gave them hope that you would improve their life, then who are you as a feeling human being when you don’t personally carry through? Does the legal documentation matter?


Also, I’ve noticed problems with several studies that had this particular reviewer:

Add the current study to the list.

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/18/5637.full “Causal effects of the early caregiving environment on development of stress response systems in children”

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