How Growing Up in Poverty May Affect a Child’s Developing Brain

A mounting body of research shows that the circumstances and chronic stresses of poverty interrupt the development of the brain

chronic stresses
A mounting body of research shows that the circumstances and chronic stresses of poverty interrupt the development of the brain. Image via US Dept. of Education

Once upon a time, scientists thought that the human brain was a rigid, predictable organ, not tremendously different from the lungs or liver. Based on a person’s genetics, it developed in a predetermined way, endowing an individual with a particular level of learning capabilities, problem-solving abilities and baseline intelligence.

Now, though, as part of emerging research into brain plasticity, neuroscientists are recognizing that the brain is a responsive, constantly evolving organ that can change at both the cellular and large-scale levels due to environmental influences and experiences. Much of this research is hopeful: It’s shown how in people with impaired vision, for instance, areas of the brain normally devoted to processing sights can be repurposed to analyze sound.

Over the past few months, though, a series of studies have emphasized that the brain can change for worse, as well as for the better. A child’s brain, not surprisingly, is especially vulnerable to such effects—and this research has shown that growing up in difficult circumstances dictated by poverty can wreak damage to a child’s cognitive skills that last a lifetime.

An October study by researchers from the University of Michigan, for instance, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)—which detects blood flow in various areas of the brain as a reflection of brain activity—to study the regulation of emotions in young adults who were part of a long-term study on poverty. They compared a participant’s family income at age 9 (based on survey data collected at the time) with his or her current neural activity in different brain regions, and found that those who grew up in poverty showed increased activity in the amygdala (believed to be involved in anxiety, fear and emotional disorders) and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (which limits the influence of the amygdala, putting long-term decision making over impulse) when the participants were shown emotionally-upsetting images.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but the researchers suspect that a range of chronic stresses that can accompany growing up in poverty—things like crowding, noise, violence, family turmoil or separation—impact the development of the brain in childhood and adolescence, potentially explaining this correlation.

Another October study, meanwhile, took a more basic approach, examining the relationship between nurturing during childhood and the growth of brain tissue in children between the ages of six and 12. In it, Washington University in St. Louis researchers found that among the 145 children studied, those whose parents had poor nurturing skills had slowed growth in white matter, grey matter and the volumes of several different areas of the brain involved with learning skills and coping with stress. Based on the differing growth rates between children who resembled each other in terms of other key factors, it seemed as though the experience of growing up with adults with less nurturing skills effectively set back their mental development a year or two. And impoverished parents, they found, were more likely to have poor nurturing skills.

Sure, attempting to objectively evaluate the parenting styles of the adults in this study might be a bit heavy-handed, but the study identified chronic stresses experienced by the children as a key element as well: Children who grew up in poverty but had fewer stressful life events (as part of a larger program, they’d gone through annual assessments from the age of three onward) demonstrated smaller reductions in neural development.

Others have even looked into very specific behavioral effects of poverty. A recent Northwestern University study found a link that children with lower socioeconomic status tended to have less efficient auditory processing abilities—that is, the area of their brains responsible for processing sound showed more response to distracting noise and less activity as a result of a speaker’s voice than control participants. This might be an effect, the researchers say, of the known correlation between low income and the amount of noise exposure in urban populations.

Of course, most of these are limited by the very nature of a longitudinal study in that they’re correlations, rather than causations—ethics aside, it’s impossible to actively alter a person’s childhood circumstances in a controlled manner and then check the results, so researchers are forced to observe what happens in the real world and draw conclusions. Additionally, in most of these cases, it’s unknown whether the effects are temporary or permanent—whether children exposed to poverty are permanently left behind their peers, or whether they’re able to catch up if given the chance.

But the fact that correlations between poverty and altered mental function when stressed has been repeatedly observed across a range of study designs, circumstances and research groups makes it likely that these effects aren’t aberrations. Additionally, even if they are temporary effects that can be resolved by changing a child’s environment, there’s other recent research that dishearteningly reveals a neurological mechanism that helps to perpetuate poverty, by making it difficult for parent to make choices that change these circumstances.

An August study in Science found that being preoccupied with the all-consuming concerns of poverty—struggling to pay medical bills, for instance—taxes the brain, leaving less extra bandwidth to solve complex cognitive problems and harming long-term decision making ability. In a pair of study groups (shoppers in a New Jersey mall and sugar cane farmers in rural India), simply getting the participants thinking about economic problems (asking them what they’d do if they had to pay $1500 to repair their car, for instance) caused them to perform more poorly on tests that measure IQ and impulse control than otherwise.

The bandwidth problem they identified is temporary, not permanent, but it does explain how making the difficult decisions that might allow someone to get ahead are harder for a person immersed in poverty. It also highlights yet another stressor for parents seeking to ensure that their children escape poverty—they might be inadvertently contributing to an environment that keeps their children from rising above their circumstances.

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