The effects of the opioid epidemic are enormous.
News 5 has told you about the impact on children and how the crisis is causing the foster care system here in Northeast Ohio to become overwhelmed. But there is another consequence, one that is hidden and growing.
“You don't see as much black over here, do you,” noted Dr. Max Wiznitzer, pointing to two different brain scans of two different children.
The children are both three years old.
“This is a nice, healthy looking brain,” Dr. Wiznitzer explained. “This one is strophic and missing parts.”
The image on the left is clearly much larger and fuller. The one on the right – smaller with more empty space. The difference? It's not based on disease or illness. The child on the right has been severely neglected.
“The bottom line here is, if you don't use the brain, if you don't exercise the brain and you don't stimulate the brain, it doesn't develop the way it should and in fact you may lose vital functions,” said Dr. Wiznitzer.
Dr. Wiznitzer is a pediatric neurologist with University Hospitals. He says a lack of love and nurturing early on has a huge impact on a child's brain.
“After the baby's born, the first two years of life is the time period in which the majority of brain development occurs,” he said. “The brain development occurs not only for just the brain growing itself, but you have connections that are occurring between different areas of the brain and not only are connections being developed, but then the connections turn from gravel roads to super highways.”
Lack of brain development in children is becoming a heartbreaking reality of the opioid epidemic.
“The parents are into their drugs so much, they neglect their children and the children can basically be living in filth, they're left to fend for themselves,” noted Dr. Wiznitzer. “The older ones have to take care of the younger ones and there's not that stimulation that the children need in order to properly develop.”
According to Dr. Wiznitzer, neglected children become adults with lower IQ's, more mental health issues and a greater risk for poverty, crime and drug abuse.
“And what happens in those circumstances? We create a new generation that basically will do the exact same thing their parents did,” he said.
That is why he says early intervention is key.
“One is you identify children who have developmental problems of some type,” Dr. Wiznitzer explained. “You put into place therapies or treatments that will address their areas of shortcoming, with the idea being to help those areas of shortcoming lessen and disappear. And making sure that the mothers and fathers know what they're supposed to do in terms of parenting.”
Early intervention and screening for at risk children is mandated by federal law. Here in Ohio, we have the "Help Me Grow" program. It has offices in every county in our state.
“The brain needs two types of fuel,” Dr. Wiznitzer said. “It needs the physical field to make it grow, which means the calories and the nutrients to make it grow, but it also needs the behavioral, developmental, emotional fuel. Talking to the child, playing with the child, allowing the child to roam around and explore the environment, showing the child how things are supposed to be done appropriately, and these two fuels are really what you need in order to get to the good looking brain.