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The Effects of Poverty on the Brain

The brains of poor children are atrophied but can rebound.

Republicans and Democrats both acknowledge the erosion of the middle class. They differ on solutions to the problem. Left out of the public discourse discussion are the poor who, both parties seem to say, will do better if the middle class is shored up.

Neither party has defined poverty as a moral concern. But it is a primary ethical matter once you take into account the impact that long-term poverty has on the lives of people, children in particular.

First, let’s look at the facts in this country. In 2011, poverty levels stood at over 15%, the highest in 20 years. This is a measure of absolute, not relative poverty and is defined by the government as the “threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter, and clothing needed to preserve health.”

Recent studies show that the brains of poor children are impacted by poverty. A historical example of this claim, given by Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher from Stanford, demonstrates this dramatically. For many years, children’s thymus glands were radiated to prevent SIDS (eventually causing thyroid cancer in thousands of adults). Physicians believed that the normal thymus in children should be small, which is what they saw in the children they dissected because the only bodies autopsied at the time were that of poor people. In fact, the gland was small due to the stresses of poverty. The thymus gland in children normal children large and grows smaller with age.

In another study, Sapolsky wrote about the impact of stress upon the brains of poor children. The brains of poor children are atrophied. But was this because poverty causes small brains or people who are poor start out with smaller brains? Sapolsky thought the former, though conceded that his conclusions were tentative, as correlation doesn’t prove causation.

But the mounting evidence is that the relationship between atrophied brains and stress is more than a correlation—it is causal. As a study at Boston Children’s Hospital concludes, severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains.

Unfortunately, stress and poverty go hand-in-hand. More important than unhealthy lifestyles and lack of access to good healthcare, chronic stress makes many susceptible to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes. The impact upon the brain is seen with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: the hippocampus part of their brains is atrophied.

Chronic stress, which is experienced by many poor children, can be devastating since the hippocampus regulates emotional responses, is critical in the formation of memory and spatial awareness. (The impact of chronic stress is different than the reaction to acute stress, which may be beneficial by, for example, causing greater alertness and increased focus.)

Poor children experience high levels of stress because, amongst other reasons, they live in violent neighborhoods, walk across many busy vehicular intersections, move residences twice as often and get evicted five times as often as the average American, are more likely to be bullied in school.

So while changing eating habits of children is a good thing from every point of view, it will have a relatively small effect in making poor children healthier.

This isn’t cause for despair, for it is possible to reverse the damaging effects of chronic stress in children. Sapolsky said that in rats, short-term exposure to glucocorticoids causes neurons to shrink, but they rebound when levels of the hormones return to normal. However, he notes that long-term exposure causes irreversible damage.

A recent study that looked at children in Romania who were transferred from orphanages to foster care reached the same conclusion. The brains of children in the orphanage were damaged but these changes can be partially reversed with quality foster care. One of the researchers, Margaret Sheridan, said, “Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development. The implications are wide-ranging, not just for institutionalized children but also for children exposed to abuse, abandonment, violence during war, extreme poverty, and other adversities.

It is easy to draw the wrong conclusion from these findings, as Sapolsky is well aware. He writes, “The psychosocial school has occasionally been accused of promulgating an anti-progressive message: don't bother with universal health care, affordable medicines and other salutary measures because there will still be a robust SES/health gradient after all the reforms. But the lesson of this research is not to abandon such societal change. It is that so much more is needed.”

True poverty (not that associated with recent immigrants, graduate students or religious ascetics) takes it toll on children. Society needs to intervene early by reducing stress to acceptable levels. Social change needs to be self-conscious and communal. It isn’t a matter of one person being kind to another. It is a wholesale commitment to ensure that every child has the chance to live without chronic stress.

Here is Sapolsky once more: “Higher income inequality intensities a community's hierarchy and makes social support less available: truly symmetrical, reciprocal, affiliative support exists only among equals. Moreover, having your nose rubbed in your poverty is likely to lessen your sense of control in life, to aggravate the frustrations of poverty and to intensify the sense of life worsening ... the surest way to feel poor is to be made to feel poor—to be endlessly made aware of the haves when you are a have-not. And in our global village, we are constantly made aware of the moguls and celebrities whose resources dwarf ours.”

So, it turns out, part of the problem is income inequality. Addressing this problem is more likely to protect the brains of poor children than waiting for a recovering economy to provide more dollars in the pockets of the poor.


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