New Study Suggests Poverty Affects Brain Structure in Children and Teenagers

© Spencer Platt/Getty Images A child is viewed at a thrift store operated by Gonzales Christian Assistance Ministry, one of the few social services organizations in Gonzales assisting those in poverty on March 27, 2015 in Gonzales, Texas.
© Spencer Platt/Getty Images A child is viewed at a thrift store operated by Gonzales Christian Assistance Ministry, one of the few social services organizations in Gonzales assisting those in poverty on March 27, 2015 in Gonzales, Texas.

A provocative new study suggests that poverty affects brain structure in children and teenagers, with children growing up in the poorest households having smaller brains than those who live in affluence.

The study, published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, was led by Kimberly Noble, who teaches at both Teachers College, Columbia University and at the university’s medical school. Elizabeth Sowell of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in California was the senior author.

In the largest study of its kind to date, the researchers worked with a team of neuroscientists around the country to record the brain images of 1,099 children and teens from ages 3 to 20. The researchers spent three years analyzing the magnetic resonance imaging scans.

They measured the surface area of the cerebral cortices, the outer layer of the brain which controls the most sophisticated cognitive functions such as language, reading, decision making and spatial skills. Prior studies have shown that the cortex can grow as a result of experiences and stimulation. The researchers also administered cognitive tests to the children.

They found that the brains of children in families that earned less than $25,000 a year had 6 percent less surface area than those whose families earned $150,000 or more. The poor children also scored lower on the battery of cognitive tests.

[A tremendous number of school children in America still live in poverty]

“We see that children’s brain structure varies with parents’ educational attainment and income,” said Noble, who stressed that researchers cannot say whether poverty causes smaller brain structures.

“Correlation is not causation,” she said. “We can talk about links between parent education and family income and children’s brain structure but we can’t say for sure these differences are causing differences in brain structure.”

The researchers have two theories about why poor children have smaller brains. One is that poor families lack access to material goods that help healthy development, like good nutrition and higher quality health care. The other theory is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could be inhibiting brain development in children.

Noble and Sowell have embarked on a new study to try to answer that question. They have begun a pilot study to investigate whether giving low-income mothers a small or large monthly sum impacts the cognitive development of their children in their first three years of life. They plan to recruit 1,000 low-income mothers from around the country, half of whom would receive $333 a month, while the other half receive $20 a month for three years. That research is expected to take five years.

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Source: The Washington Post | Lyndsey Layton

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