Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood

Little Girl in Classroom

Current research has found that there is a relationship between brain size and socioeconomic status in children and adolescents. Researchers have found that certain regions the brain, especially those involved in language and decision making, tend to be smaller in disadvantaged individuals compared to affluent counterparts.

Childhood experiences play a large role in brain development, and it has already been shown that children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not perform as well in school and on cognitive tasks as children from families with more resources. Previous studies examining the neuroanatomical differences in the brains of these groups have been unsuccessful as they did not separate the effects of race and socioeconomic status or of income and education. The current study looks at the effects of family income and parental education on the brains of children and adolescents, all independent of race. Researchers recruited 1,100 participants ages 3-20 and collected data about their socioeconomic status before conducting an MRI and cognitive testing.

The researchers discovered that individuals with higher family income had more brain surface area, especially in brain regions involved in language, reading, and executive functions like problem solving and memory, than those from lower income families. Specifically, individuals from families who made more than $150,000 per year had brains with 6% more surface area than those raised in families making less than $25,000 per year. Not surprisingly, individuals with smaller brain surface areas also tended to perform worse of various cognitive tests. Regarding parental education, participants from highly educated families tended to have larger hippocampi, a brain area important for learning and memory.

The reason for these differences is unknown, but possible explanations include: low income families having less access to resources like healthy food, good health care, good schools, and play areas that affluent families often have access to. Also, family environments in low income homes could be more stressful and low income families may be more likely to live in polluted areas.

This study provides evidence for the importance of appropriate environmental enrichment, especially during development.  Recent research has shown that speaking to children and babies and exposing them to as many new words as possible is vital to optimal brain development, and that children of low income or education often hear far fewer words growing up causing them to do worse in school and other cognitive tasks. This could be another reason for the relationship seen between reduced brain tissue and poverty.


7 thoughts on “Poverty and Brain Development During Childhood

  1. This study and its findings sound very interesting and also very sad. Perhaps the differences can also be attributed to the stress than comes along with poverty. Chronic stress has shown to decrease neurogenesis and shrink dendrites so maybe this also factors in.


  2. This was an interesting topic to read about, since I am also taking education classes and we are talking about children in poverty and the advantages and disadvantages they have to carry with them in a learning environment. Some of the things presented in this study correlated with what we had learned in my education classes, and some of them didn’t. We talked a lot about how memory recall is often important to children in low income homes, because this relates to a class specific story-telling lifestyle and also could be considered a “survival” skill.
    But, I think that the cognitive tests they are taking about here that measure learning and memory could be from very different brain areas. It would be interesting to see those types of tests and what they ask the kids.
    This also directly related to my class, because we talked about how the hippocampus is an area of the brain that particularly suffers from chronic stress because of the abundance of glucocorticoid receptors in that region, so it is cool to see it talked about in a different light.


  3. This was an interesting article to read, and it brings to light many issues faced by those with less affluent backgrounds, and highlights one of the many causes of the lack of opportunities that these individuals face. I wonder if this is caused by the inability of parents to devote as much time to reading their children stories and otherwise cognitively engaging them in a variety of mentally stimulating activities. It is also possible, of course, that there is something actively toxic about the environments that these children are raised in. I am especially interested in the stress systems of the children raised in these environments, and how it corresponds to the research involving the tuning of the HPA access. I think a lot of future research can be done in this area and overall it was a very interesting topic to discuss.


  4. I enjoyed reading this post because it delves into a biological explanation of something that I think most people only view on a peripheral, social level: wealth discrepancy. Poverty can be viewed as a cycle in which factors such as stress, home environment, and education all connect to one another; this article presents another factor of the cycle. In contrast, when families have enough or more than enough money to afford living in a clean, low-stress environment with all the food and resources that they need, people may be neurologically advantaged and so they therefore proceed within their own cycle. As Nick mentions in his reply, articles such as this one should grab then attention of other researchers -and hopefully the public- so as to increase the knowledge that we have about the neurological implications of poverty and the cyclical lifestyle that it so often elicits.


  5. I found this topic really interesting because I am currently taking a class where we explore the relationship between poverty and education quite a bit. People often talk about the achievement gap between affluent students and poor students. However, in this class we have learned that it would more accurately be described as the opportunity gap. Poor kids are often blamed for not doing as well in school because they are lazy and don’t care or because their parents do not care. This article provides compelling evidence to the contrary. This could really help teachers, administrators, and policy makers when they are working on school and teaching reforms. It would be really interesting to look at the dendrites on the hippocampus, to see if chronic stress is causing decreased neurogenesis in this area for the children.


  6. It is pretty insane that environmental aspects affect brain development. This really stresses how important that we need to concentrate on mental health because it really does affect all aspects of cognitive function along with neural development. When you read all about how stress affects the brain, you never really think of the stress of being from a low-income home, rather, you always think about the stresses of a job or school. We should start thinking more about the brain in response to low-income and poverty related stress.


  7. I think that there may be other possible reasons for the situation of a smaller brain surface area child with lower socioeconomic status parents. For example, perhaps many of the children of many of the wealthy parents have better functioning brains because their parents are highly intelligent with well developed brains and therefore are able to take advantage of the various ways to earn substantial amounts of money, and their offspring inherited these better functioning brains, and the same may apply to some poor parents whose brains do not function as well and they are limited in ability to take advantage of opportunities in education or business and therefore may remain economically disadvantaged and their children also inherited via genetics their parents characteristics. Even though I agree that various conditions can have an impact on a child’s intellectual development, we must not underestimate the role that DNA plays in a persons interests and abilities.


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