Poverty Produces Smaller Brains

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The rich really are different, at least when it comes to their brains. In two separate studies, researchers found that experiencing poverty in early childhood is linked to smaller brain size and less efficient processing of certain sensory information.

Previous work suggested that poverty can contribute to compromised cognitive function and low performance in schools, but using imaging, researchers have documented measurable changes in the brain tied to poverty.

In one study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, children who grew up in impoverished households showed smaller white and grey matter in their brains compared with those who had more means — these make up the density of nerve connections between different parts of the brain. The less wealthy kids also developed smaller hippocampus and amygdala regions, which are involved in regulating attention, memory and emotions.

According to the researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the smaller brain regions may be due to the increased stress and anxiety that these children experience growing up in families where finances are tight, and therefore parental support and interaction with children suffers.

In the second study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists at Northwestern University, in Illinois, connected lower maternal education, a common symptom of poverty, to poor processing of sound in the brains of children raised in lower-resource environments. The researchers found that adolescents whose mothers had less education were more likely to register more varied and noisier nerve responses when hearing speech than those whose mothers had more schooling. That response, according to previous work, could translate into poor reading skills. The scientific team suspects that the lack of constant verbal interaction between mother and child could be one factor in the noisier brain responses to speech, since such back-and-forth can prime a still-developing brain to isolate and recognize speech more efficiently. Other data established that children in higher-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than those in lower-income families where parents have less education.

The good news, however, is that the effects may be reversible. Families don’t chose poverty, but changes in caregiving, especially during early childhood, could avoid some of the physical changes the scientists measured. “By studying socioeconomic status within a neuroscientific framework, we have the potential to expand our understanding of the biological signatures of poverty,” said Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology, physiology and communication sciences at Northwestern University and an author of the second study, in a statement. “And a better understanding of how experiences shape the brain could inform educational efforts aimed at closing the socioeconomic achievement gap.”

7 comments
faketripper
faketripper

I think it was a flawed comment that poverty caused lower maternal education. The reverse is just as true and often a generation cycle of this continues. In areas of this country there is a trend to become a young mother. This article completely left out the fact that drugs, alcohol abuse and improper parenting lead to neglect and often abuse contributing to these poor children's lack of learning. Community child psychologists struggle to get parents from these homes to even play or talk with their children which is vital for learning. I agree with other commenters that this article is implying more money is needed to be taken from the wealthy and given to the poor to remedy this problem but that won't fix the problem. We need a cultural change among a large portion of the poor to stop having children so young and to stop drug and alcohol abuse. Would it end poverty for good? Of course not. Would it have a gigantic impact for good? Absolutely!

JimWisdy
JimWisdy

I don't think just because a few, or even "some", of our most successful brightest people in the world came from poverty means much.  The important facet here is that on average, our children that are poverty struck, do not show high achievement.  Just looking at a few, or "some", is not fair.  Poverty affects children and their learning ability.  To increase student achievement we should aim to extend wrap around services at school in an attempt to offset the effects of poverty at home.  Not enough of this is done.

Carlo
Carlo

Doesn't tell the whole story. Some of our most successful brightest people in the world came from poverty. This is just an attempt for the wealthy to use science to find a way to keep the classes separated and stigmatize the poverty class. It's good information to know...Survival of the fittest

isfahan
isfahan

I hate these sensationalist titles. God forbid a kid under the poverty line reads such a hopeful message. So by this logic a good 80% or more of the world has smaller brains than the financially privileged minority? I'm willing to bet there are celebrities with less developed brains than kids working tea stands in the developing world. Someone do that study. In the context of poverty, cognitive stimulation is a variable worth studying, nutrition is a variable worth studying. Even those are complicated enough to dissect. Poverty is evidently not a single variable so let's not report it that way. I guess sensationalism is the expected flavor of news media, but it's particularly painful when it's science journalism.

dri11
dri11

Shocking - stupid people have stupid kids.  Looks like heredity actually works.  

Not only that, research (done decades ago) using rats as Ss demonstrated young rats growing up in enriched environments had larger and heavier brains than young rats growing up in non-enriched environments. 

Poverty, stress, and anxiety have nothing to do with anything.  Abe Lincoln grew up in poverty and was not stupid.  It is all about cognitive stimulation. If it is present, the brain will respond (more dendrites, etc.), if it is not present, the result is diminished brain development. 

The purpose of this article/research is nothing more than an attempt by left-wingers to try and grab more tax dollars to pour into social engineering programs (despite the fact that they have been shown to produce zero benefit).

JohnAsbury
JohnAsbury

@isfahan well said! A highly generalised post for the financial elite...

I remember a time when 'Time' posted unbiased factual articles. 

commentonitall
commentonitall

@dri11 

A few things, first poverty, stress and anxiety get in the way of positive mental stimulation. The article explains it quite clearly.  The next thing is you failed to provide data that shows "social engineering programs" produce zero benefits.  The term social engineering programs could also be applied to a great many things.  Take for instance Harvard .  It's a college and is a type of social engineering and it actually produces some pretty intelligent people and seems to work (there is rampant grade inflation, but it's just one example).  Harvard is definitely tied to money so there is a counter point for your statement with no scientific backing, unlike this article provides.  Is there a problem with certain programs in this country that gives benefits to lazy entitled people, absolutely.  Does this article provide a way of looking at a problem from a different angle and provide ideas of how to fix it, certainly.  I don't see how this is a bad thing or a money grab for tax dollars.