Correlation Between Brain Development and Poverty

By: Miyako Iwata

A recent scientific study published by Nature Neuroscience indicated a correlation between family income and the progress of brain development in children. Results from the study showed that children of higher socioeconomic status saw more growth in the cerebral cortex, a key brain area that is responsible for advanced cognitive processing such as language, reading, and executive functions.
The research team, led by neurologists Kimberly Noble and Elizabeth Sowell, scanned the brains of 1,099 children and young adults between the ages of three to 20 years old. These subjects were also required to take basic cognitive tests and have their DNA samples taken to account for genetic differences. MRI scans revealed that children whose parents received higher levels of education had more cortical surface area.

The team also linked differences in overall cortical surface area to variations in family income levels. On average, children from families earning more than $150,000 annually had 6 percent more cortical surface area compared to their counterparts from households making $25,000 per year. However, disparities in the overall size of the cerebral cortex according to income lessened at higher levels.
One of the most critical findings in this study was the fact that the rate and amount of cerebral growth was unrelated to race or ethnicity.
“The links between socioeconomic status and brain structure were the same across individuals, regardless of racial background,” Noble said.
The lack of cerebral growth in the brains of impoverished children could be due to family stress, more exposure to environmental toxins, or inadequate nutrition, whereas the increased growth in children of higher socioeconomic status could be attributed to the fact that their parents could afford to “cognitively stimulate” them more. Unfortunately, this proves that the lack of brain development is an almost inevitable outcome of living in poverty.

The good news is that delays in brain growth are not permanent. With early intervention, any child can learn to read well and think intelligently. This particular aspect of the study could potentially spur positive changes in policy around early antipoverty interventions. Taking these measures and executing them effectively could begin to bridge the achievement gap between wealthier children and their classmates living in poverty.


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