How Poverty May Change a Child’s Brain

by Mike Albo

January 21, 2016
Image via (cc) Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Pediatrician and cognitive neuroscientist Kimberly Noble used MRI scans to examine the brains of children and has found that differences in socioeconomic status show differences in brain structure.

Cognitive development grows in dramatic ways during childhood and adolescence, so Noble’s team examined a group of 1,099 individuals between 3 and 20 years of age and looked at the surface area of their brains—all those nooks and crannies. Essentially, children from lower-income families had relatively large differences in surface area, while children from higher-income families had smaller differences. “These relationships were most prominent in regions supporting language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills,” reads Noble’s findings, printed in Nature Neuroscience.

The study claims this implies that “income relates most strongly to brain structure among the most disadvantaged children.” Basically, the stresses of poverty, as well as the lack of access to good education and other advantages that come with money, may cause disparities in brain structure.

Studies of the brain, and the mapping of environmental effects upon it, are still very new and interpretive. We know very little about how the brain works. When asked by the journal Nautilus if she thought that this research would be used to prove that poor kids are damaged and don’t matter, Noble answered:

As neuroscientists, we believe that nothing could be further from the truth. We know that the developing brain is very malleable. We believe that the differences we reported are largely the result of experience, and have every reason to believe that by changing those experiences—through preventive measures or interventions—we can change children’s trajectories for the better.”

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How Poverty May Change a Child’s Brain