But brain change gets harder as time passes, says Nelson of Children’s Hospital. It’s critical to intervene early before brain damage takes place, he says, to provide support for parents and caregivers, treatment and family therapy and, if need be, to remove children from abusive homes. Interventions done later in life will likely be less successful in rerouting the brain wiring than interventions done earlier, when the brain is more plastic, he says.
“If you have a plastic circuit then you might be able to overcome early adversity when placed in a better environment because the brain is still plastic enough to change,” he says.
The cost of delaying is huge — not only in human terms, but also financially. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, “the total lifetime cost of child maltreatment is $124 billion each year.”
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, head of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, says we must respond urgently to the scourge of childhood neglect, as we have to other public health threats.