Severe deprivation in the first few years of life is associated with multiple difficulties in cognition and behavior. However, the brain basis for these difficulties is poorly understood. Structural and functional neuroimaging studies have implicated limbic system structures as dysfunctional, and one functional imaging study in a heterogeneous group of maltreated individuals has confirmed the presence of abnormalities in the basal ganglia. Based on these studies and known dopaminergic abnormalities from studies in experimental animals using social isolation, we used a task of monetary reward anticipation to examine the functional integrity of brain regions previously shown to be implicated in reward processing. Our sample included a group of adolescents (n = 12) who had experienced global deprivation early in their lives in Romania prior to adoption into UK families. In contrast to a nonadopted comparison group (n = 11), the adoptees did not recruit the striatum during reward anticipation despite comparable performance accuracy and latency. These results show, for the first time, an association between early institutional deprivation and brain reward systems in humans and highlight potential neural vulnerabilities resulting from such exposures.

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