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Study Reveals Association between Poverty and Children’s Brain Development


Image credit: Jaromir Chalabala/ Shutterstock

Based on scanning work dedicated to the brains of around 1,000 individuals, researchers have discovered the association between brain size and socioeconomic status in regard to children and adolescents. The study has revealed that certain parts of brain, especially those related to functions of language and decision-making, have the tendency to be smaller in those with poorer and less educated background than those from the richer families. While the study was correlational, it is hoped by scientists that such discovery might lead to positive changes to antipoverty measures, thus making a really great difference to those from poor families. This study has been released in recent edition of Nature.

It is known that human brains are products generated from  genetics and the environment, and childhood experiences are said to be vital for shaping its development. Therefore, it is not   surprised that children from the higher-socioeconomic-status, a position built on the basis of education, income and occupation, are tended to do better during school days, so that they would outperform those from poorer families in terms of various measurement of being cognized.

While studies are intended to further identify this relationship in the way to compare the brains of children from different backgrounds, which have shown some remarkable differences, these have kind of limitations owing to their failure in effective discrimination between socioeconomic status and race. Additionally, they didn’t separately examine some factors like income and education, which should be vital, because it is possible that these factors do have different effects.

In order to address such important issues, a team of scientists from nine institutions across the U.S. were engaged in a large study targeted on investigation involved in the effects of both family income and parental education on brain structure in children and adolescents, without touching on genetic ancestry. To start with the study, scientists recruited 1,099 individuals who are typically developing between the ages of 3 and 20. With data of socioeconomic status collected from the participants, scientists then used MRI to image their brains and also performed different tests of cognition.

To the surprise of scientists, they discovered a close relationship between family income and brain surface area, especially those regions of the cortex closely linked with language, reading and executive functions, or the higher cognitive skills which are applied to controlling other cognitive processes, for example, those involved in memory and problem solving.

Scientists discovered that the participants from families with an income of more than $150,000 (£101,000) had nearly six percent more cortical surface area than those from families whose income were less than $25,000 (£17,000) annually. Income differences of just a few thousand dollars were also associated with big differences in brain surface area in those from the poorest backgrounds.

However the relationship failed to be finished there; because those from poorer families, thus having the smaller cortical surface areas, were also tended to perform worse in cognitive tests, especially in those designed for assessment of executive functions.

In addition, scientists also figured out a relationship between brain morphology and parental education, since those from highly educated families tended to have a larger hippocampus, which is a region mainly linked with learning and memory.

Although correlation is not able to imply causation, scientists have got some ideas to give explanation of the differences observed. Those coming from the lower-income families might get a worse diet with poorer access to things such as healthcare, decent schools and play areas than those from richer background. Family environments might also lead to more stresses for those from poor families, and they have to reside in more polluted areas.

However, scientists made the emphasis that a smaller brain was not an inevitable consequence of growing up in a disadvantaged background, and it was their belief that it could make a real difference if interventions were made in regard to improved access to health and child care as well as better food in schools.

Source: NatureNatureScienceHuffington Post and The Guardian

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