New Study Looks at Emotional and Cognitive Development of Children Adopted from Abroad

Computer Games Used in Conjunction with MRI Scans

Jun 8, 2005


Each year, thousands of children from orphanages abroad are adopted by families in the United States. Yet the long-term impact of the early experiences of these children is unknown. Researchers at Weill Medical College of Cornell University are currently conducting a study that employs tools – including computer games used in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans – to better understand the cognitive and emotional development of these children, as well as their unique experiences.

"Obtaining objective scientific information about these children is crucial for parents, educators, and clinicians," says B.J. Casey, Ph.D., the study's principal investigator and Director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

"Among parents and teachers, there is a common misperception that all children adopted from other countries have extreme cognitive, emotional, and social delays. Furthermore, children with a particular set of background experiences are sometimes portrayed as having an almost singular outcome, when the reality is that each child develops in distinctive ways," continues Dr. Casey. "By recruiting a large and diverse group of children, we seek to accurately assess the cognitive, emotional, social, and neurological development of these children."

Along with a number of standardized assessments of cognitive and emotional development, participating children are observed in an MRI while they play computer games designed to activate two brain regions: the amygdala and the hippocampus. Researchers are interested in the volume and function of these two regions as they relate to spatial and social-cognitive skills. (MRI is a non-invasive method that allows scientists to investigate brain function in healthy, awake children.)

Designed to be both fun and scientifically informative, the computer games include a "red light-green light"-type game in which the child responds to facial expressions; this tests emotion recognition, which is associated with activity of a brain region called the amygdala. A second game asks the child to press buttons in response to various visual cues and patterns; this tests for spatial memory, which is associated with activity of a brain region called the hippocampus.

The study also looks at levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone released by the adrenal gland, and contained in the saliva. Parents will be given a "spit kit" to collect saliva samples at home.

The study seeks to recruit a diverse group of English-speaking children between the ages of 4 and 16 who were born abroad, adopted in the U.S., and currently live in the greater New York City area. As part of the study, children and their families are required to make two visits to Weill Cornell's Sackler Institute. (Visits in the late afternoon and on weekends will be available to accommodate school and other activities.) For their time in completing this study, families receive financial compensation, and the child receives a certificate of thanks for helping science, as well as images of his or her brain. Interested parties may contact Nim Tottenham at 212-746-5830 or Dr. B.J. Casey at 212-746-5832.