On the impact of forced separation on brain development and mental health

22nd Jun 2018

Recent events in the United States have highlighted the traumatic impact of the forced separation of parents from children. Recently, the US-based Society for Neuroscience released a statement [1] highlighting the scientific evidence that stress and trauma caused by parental separation can have long-lasting and severe consequences on brain development and mental health of children.

The British Neuroscience Association is pleased that an executive order has been issued which appears to end enforced separation in the US, and wishes it to be noted that such practices continue to exist in the UK. The most recent data that we are aware of suggest that “separated families [in the UK] now face the least ‘family-friendly’ immigration policies in the developed world”. About 15,000 children are estimated to have been affected by family separation through immigration rules implemented between 2012 and 2015 [2, 3].

We call upon the UK Government to recognise the robust scientific evidence that high levels of anxiety and stress, often caused by separation from caregivers, leads to the deterioration of mental health, and negatively impacts brain and physical development [for example, 4 – 13]. We urge policy-makers to remodel policies and processes around scientific findings so as to reduce the impact of enforced separation of children from their caregivers.


We are grateful to Dr. Catherine Sebastian (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (University College London) for advice on scientific evidence. We thank ‘Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID)’ for advice on data relating to separated families.

The British Neuroscience Association (BNA) is the largest UK professional body representing all aspects of neuroscience, from ion channels to human behaviour to applications in the clinic and beyond. Find more information about the BNA here.


  1. SfN Statement on Family Separation, 2018: http://www.sfn.org/news-and-calendar/news-and-calendar/news/spotlight/2018/sfn-statement-on-family-separation
  2. “Family Friendly? The impact on children of the Family Migration Rules:  A review of the financial requirements”. Commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner for England; Middlesex University and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.  August 2015. https://www.jcwi.org.uk/sites/default/files/2016-09/CCO-Family-Friendly-Report-090915_0.pdf
  3. Migrant Integration Policy Index, 2015. http://www.mipex.eu.
  4. Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R. & Heim, C. Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition. Nature Rev. Neurosci. 10, 434–445 (2009).
  5. Stevens, S. et al. (2008). Inattention/overactivity following early severe institutional deprivation: Presentation and associations in early adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36(3), 385-398.
  6. Rutter, M. et al. (2007). Effects of profound early institutional deprivation: An overview of findings from a UK longitudinal study of Romanian adoptees. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4(3), 332-350.
  7. Gee, D.G. et al. (in press). “Early Developmental Emergence of Human Amygdala-PFC Connectivity after Maternal Deprivation”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  8. Olsavsky, A. et al. (in press). Indiscriminate amygdala response to mothers and strangers following early maternal deprivation. Biological Psychiatry.
  9. Dennison, M. J. et al. (2017). Differential Associations of Distinct Forms of Childhood Adversity With Neurobehavioral Measures of Reward Processing: A Developmental Pathway to Depression. Child Development.
  10. Hanson JL, et al. (2014). Behavioral Problems After Early Life Stress: Contributions of the Hippocampus and Amygdala. Biological Psychiatry, 77(4): 314-323.
  11. Nelson CA (2017). Hazards to Early Development: The Biological Embedding of Early Life Adversity. Neuron 96(2):262-266.
  12. Whyte, C. (2018) “Children seized at US border will face lasting health effects”, New Scientist.
  13. Meiser-Stedman R. et al. (2017) Posttraumatic stress disorder in young children three years post-trauma: prevalence and longitudinal predictors. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 78(3): 334–339.

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