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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