Your Brain On Poverty: Low-Income Childhood Linked To Smaller Brain

Young children living in poverty appear to have smaller brain volumes in critical areas, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine. But poverty’s detrimental impact on brain development may be mediated by basic early interventions like compassionate parenting and caregiving, the report says.

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

(Digital Shotgun/flickr)

Growing up poor is already known to be associated with a higher risk of “poor cognitive outcomes” and school performance, the researchers note. But what’s fairly new here is how outside economic forces play out in the development of a child’s brain. According to the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics Monday:

Poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by caregiving support/hostility on the left and right, as well as stressful life events on the left.

The finding that exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age further underscores the importance of attention to the well-established deleterious effects of poverty on child development. Findings that these effects on the hippocampus are mediated by caregiving and stressful life events suggest that attempts to enhance early caregiving should be a focused public health target for prevention and early intervention. Findings substantiate the behavioral literature on the negative effects of poverty on child development and provide new data confirming that effects extend to brain development. Mechanisms for these effects on the hippocampus are suggested to inform intervention.

Here’s more on the research from USA Today:

A team of researchers at the St. Louis-based university, led by Joan Luby, analyzed brain scans of 145 children between the ages of 6 and 12 who had been tracked since preschool…Aside from the influence environmental factors of poverty may have on a student’s behavior and school performance, the researchers found that poverty also appears to alter the physical makeup of a child’s brain; those children exposed to poverty at an early age had smaller volumes of white and cortical gray matter, as well as hippocampal and amygdala volumes.

White and gray matter, nerve tissues found in the brain, are associated with sending communications in the brain, as well as sensory perception, memory, emotions and speech, respectively. Meanwhile, the hippocampus is a region of the brain involved in the conversion of short-term memory to long-term memory, and spatial navigation, and the amygdala plays a role in processing memories and emotions. Having smaller volumes of these regions of the brain means those functions may be impaired, the study suggests.

“The finding that exposure to poverty in early childhood materially impacts brain development at school age further underscores the importance of attention to the well-established deleterious effects of poverty on child development,” the report says.

In an accompanying editorial, Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, wrote that the study might be skewed in some way since many of the children were depressed or at risk for depression. However, he wrote that the findings are consistent with earlier work that shows the damaging effects of living in poverty on brain development. He writes:

Advances in both neuroscience and genetics have increasingly shed light on how early experience “gets under the skin.” Whether we adopt the term developmental programming or biological embedding, the construct remains the same: early experience weaves its way into the neural and biological infrastructure of the child in such a way as to impact developmental trajectories and outcomes.

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  • justalocalreader

    Not if you go by my son. He’s grown up “poor”. We qualify for foodstamps,section 8 because I can’t earn enough income at my job. He’s always honor roll and has incredible science skills and great curiosity. Maybe it’s more in how your raised than the poor factor.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    The study is not skewed due a risk or presence of depression. Depression and other mental illness often result from poverty and the incredible stress that status imbues on children and adults alike. It is the body’s fairly rational way of dealing with an irrational circumstance.
    Poverty is an evil – an unmitigated evil. In the US there is no excuse for poverty. None. This study demonstrates that we diminish our own natural resources by allowing poverty to perpetuate. Mitigation to the effects of poverty on the growing brain are a good start – eliminating poverty will allow America and all her inhabitants to reach their true potential.

    • HarryObrian

      While you offer no solution let me interject…Raising the poor up by simply taking from others is not the solution…

      • Leland

        While you offer no evidence Harry to support your hypothesis, allow me to jump in with my two cents.
        Would it not be fair for people who are very successful to pay more into the system that allowed them the opportunity to become successful in the first place? Perhaps a return to the tax rates during the late 50s when the average american was much better off and the top 1 percent paid 91 percent of their income in taxes. Then with the new tax revenue we could expand social welfare and education programs, and within a single generation we could introduce a healthy, well-fed, educated workforce into the system. Continuing the cycle of prosperity and with every generation reducing the need to rely on the aformentioned welfare programs. Sounds like an effective solution to me.
        Or if that’s to “liberal” for you perhaps a more blunt choice. Would you rather the 1 percent foster the opportunity for the downtroden to succeed, or for the “have-nots”, in inevitable desperation, to take what they desire by force? Is the rise of the soviet union ringing a bell? Their numbers are greater, they are well armed (in this country at least), and, perhaps most disturbingly, we have nothing to lose.
        Food for thought. Have a great day

        • CircusMcGurkus

          Here’s the part I don’t get: why WOULDN’T people who have more than they need WANT to ensure stability, growth, health, lower crime, fewer systemic costs for mental health and prison and more people paying into the tax base by paying a little more up front to reduce or where possible eliminate the one thing we know is destroying our overall economy: poverty? Wasn’t it Ben Franklin who said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Well, that is true in this regard as well: a little money to alleviate and reduce poverty pays huge dividends on the other side. Even if Harry does not care about people less fortunate than himself, what reason can he give NOT to pay for programs that are cheaper rather than “solutions” that are more expensive?
          I am lucky – I live in Boston – I have access to art and music and theater and libraries and history and ocean and river and green space. I have NO PROBLEM paying taxes so everyone can enjoy those things. I WANT people to engage in their community and experience all of the wonders around them regardless of how much income they make. It makes us all richer to lift everyone up.
          Life is not a zero sum game – you do not have to lose for me to win and vice versa. If we can help someone in need, we should – that is basic citizenship. We all can do better if we realize that we’re in this thing together and for the long haul – otherwise why protect the environment? Why preserve natural and man-made history for future generations? Why conduct medical research? We do not plant trees to sit in their shade.

          I have a different take from the “we built it” idea (though I do not disagree with that message.) My question to Harry is from whom am I taking when everyone benefits from the result?

          • CAB

            And why the government bureaucracy would be the best way to achieve this? We see how well they run public school system, welfare and ObamaCare.
            In stead of robbing middle class (top 1% will move their money on Cyprus or other country with low tax) why not simply encourage people to donate to charities, which would need to “earn” money by proving that they put them to the good use. Then top 50% (or may be all 100%) will contribute to the good of the society and they will check that money is not stolen by bureaucrats or lobbyists.

            You do not want to use Soviet Union as an example of the “good” government, because they bankrupted the country and 40 years later most of the people still lost.

          • moknows52

            seriously, the top 1 % pays a lower tax rate than you or I, one single family controls nearly the same amount of wealth as the bottom 40% and they did that by paying poverty wages, not giving benefits to there workers so they have to live on food stamps and Medicaid, if they can get it. The wealthy didn’t just get their wealth from hard work they got it by keeping the money rather than give their employees a living wage. For God’s sake Australia has a minimum wage of $16 and that doesn’t seem to hurt their economy and right along side of their for profit insurance is universal health care. And they have a much better life expectancy than we do.

          • CAB

            Is this a case of statistics made up on the spot? Check your facts: Australia HIGHEST growth rate 4.5% (, America — 17.2% (
            See the difference?