Link Between Brain Development And Poverty Found

poverty and brain

(SES) refers to socio-economic status households.

It is known amongst education and health professionals in the field of child development that early years’ experiences have a huge effect on children’s ability to acquire developmental milestones. Such experiences are greatly associated with family lifestyle and conditions. A new study found a connection between the child’s brain development and family income.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who proved that families living with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty line have less gray matter in their brains than those living in households with higher incomes.

“This is an important link between poverty and biology. We’re watching how poverty gets under the skin,” says Barbara Wolfe, one of the authors of the study.

The longitudinal study involved conducting and analyzing brain scans of children repeatedly every few months starting soon after birth until 4 years of age. The study showed that children in poor families demonstrated delays in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain, which could help explain later difficulties common in school years, such as those related to learning or attention to task.

“One of the things that is important here is that the infants’ brains look very similar at birth,” says Pollak, University of Wisconsin’s psychology professor. “You start seeing the separation in brain growth between the children living in poverty and the more affluent children increase over time, which really implicates the postnatal environment.”

The study excluded children whose brain development might have been affected by other factors such as birth complications, head injuries, family psychiatric history, or mothers who smoked/drank during pregnancy.

The study revealed no significant differences in brain development between middle-income and high-income families. However, the difference was obvious between those coming from poor and wealthy families. Wolfe suggested a number of factors that could be relative to such differences in brain development. Poor nutrition, lack of books and educational toys, stressful and unsafe environments were some of the factors suggested by Wolfe.

Wolfe further explained “We don’t really know their individual contribution or the combined effect. But we do know we observed no apparent structural differences very early in life. This might be viewed as very good news, as it suggests that public policy can reduce the gap.”

“We know from nonhuman animal studies that being left in cages without toys and exercise, without stimulation and opportunities to explore, can cause a decrease in the generation of neurons and synapses in the brain,” Pollak says.

It is important to note though that such a condition does not mean permanent difficulties, since the brain’s neuroplastic abilities allow for continuous brain development upon proper stimulation; a neurological process that is more dynamic at younger ages.

“These people are not doomed, and can hopefully fully recoup if they are appropriately stimulated,” stated Wolfe. “It means that we as a society need to find ways to help provide an enriched, stimulating and safe environment for these young children.”

“When we say enrichment, we’re not talking about flashcards or special software,” says Jamie Hanson, the study’s lead author. “We’re talking about providing normal interactions: talking to and comforting your child, giving children time to play and explore with you out in a park without stress.”

Wolfe however asserted that such experiences could be hard to provide in a poor family where parents are juggling long hours and multiple jobs.

Families need to remember that despite all difficulties, it is indeed doable, and that the most important experiences in a child’s life could be provided for free. Parents just need to prioritize and spend smart times with their little ones. My next article will discuss ideas that help in supporting a child’s healthy development, yet could be performed in the comfort of one’s own environment for little to no money.

Source: University of Wisconsin News

Photo Credit: Jamie L. Hanson, Nicole Hair, Dinggang G. Shen, Feng Shi, John H. Gilmore, Barbara L. Wolfe, Seth D. Pollak. Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (12): e80954 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080954

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