Brain structural alterations in left-behind children: A magnetic resonance imaging study

Yuchuan Fu, Yuan Xiao, Meimei Du, Chuanwan Mao, Gui Fu, Lili Yang, Xiaozheng Liu, John A. Sweeney, Su Lui, Zhihan Yan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Parental migration has caused millions of children left behind, especially in China and India. Left-behind children (LBC) have a high risk of mental disorders and may present negative life outcomes in the future. However, little is known whether there are cerebral structural alterations in LBC in relative to those with parents. This study is to explore the effect of parental migration on brain maturation by comparing gray matter volume (GMV) and fractional anisotropy (FA) of LBC with well-matched non-LBC. Thirty-eight LBC (21 boys, age = 9.60 ± 1.8 years) and 30 non-LBC (19 boys, age = 10.00 ± 1.95 years) were recruited and underwent brain scans in 3.0 T MR. Intelligence quotient and other factors including family income, guardians’ educational level and separation time were also acquired. GMV and FA were measured for each participant and compared between groups using 2-sample t-tests with atlas-based analysis. Compared to non-LBC, LBC exhibited greater GMV in emotional and cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuits, and altered FA in bilateral superior occipitofrontal fasciculi and right medial lemniscus (p < 0.05, Cohen’s d > 0.89, corrected for false-discovery rate). Other factors including family income, guardians’ educational level and separation time were not associated with these brain changes. Our study provides empirical evidence of altered brain structure in LBC compared to non-LBC, responsible for emotion regulation and processing, which may account for mental disorders and negative life outcome of LBC. Our study suggests that absence of direct biological parental care may impact children’s brain development. Therefore, public health efforts may be needed to provide additional academic and social/emotional supports to LBC when their parents migrate to seeking better economic circumstances, which has become increasingly common in developing countries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number33
JournalFrontiers in Neural Circuits
Volume13
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 24 2019
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Fractional anisotropy
  • Gray matter volume
  • Left-behind children
  • MRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Sensory Systems
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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    Fu, Y., Xiao, Y., Du, M., Mao, C., Fu, G., Yang, L., Liu, X., Sweeney, J. A., Lui, S., & Yan, Z. (2019). Brain structural alterations in left-behind children: A magnetic resonance imaging study. Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 13, [33]. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncir.2019.00033