Childhood Poverty Has Detrimental Impacts on Brain Structure

Child poverty, brain development, and low academic achievement are intertwined.

Posted Jul 21, 2015

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Evidence continues to mount that there is a correlation between growing up in poverty, brain development, and lower academic achievement. 

The link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement has been well documented. Children living in poverty tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, lower grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school. Recent brain imaging studies show that growing up in a low-income household also impacts brain structure as reflected by less gray matter volume. 

The majority of children attending public schools in the United States come from low-income households. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2013 found that 51 percent of students across US public schools were from low-income families.  

Socioeconomic stratification creates an uneven playing field. The longer children live in poverty—or the poorer they are—the wider the academic achievement gap becomes in comparison to their more affluent peers. This presents a crisis for our individual and collective future that needs to be addressed by taking a multi-pronged approach to reduce childhood poverty and its impacts.

Why Does Growing Up in Poverty Impact Brain Structure?

Previous research has shown that lower-income students tend to suffer from more stress in early childhood, have less access to enriching educational resources, and receive less exposure to spoken language and vocabulary early in life. When all of these factors coelesce, they can lead to changes in brain structure, cognitive skills, and lower academic achievement. 

Different facets of childhood poverty—including elevated life stress and less nurturing by a caregiver due to financial constraints—combine to impact brain structure and function. Obviously, if low-income parents have to work two full-time jobs at minimum wage just to make ends meet, there isn't going to be much time left in the week for nurturing and caregiving

In a 2012 Psychology Today blog post, "Enriched Environments Build Better Brains," I write about the benefits of enriched environments on gray matter brain volume observed in animal studies.

Historically, animal research has demonstrated that environmental stimulation, parental nurturing, and minimal distress have a positive impact on brain structure and gray matter volume. The detrimental impact of an animal being raised in an unenriched or stressful environment mirror the affects of a human child growing up in poverty. 

Typically, when comparing children who live in poverty with their more-advantaged peers, poorer children tend to have less parental nurturing, elevated levels of daily stress, increased family instability, and greater exposure to violence. Low-income households also tend to provide less cognitive stimulation due to austerity. All of these factors combined appear to reduce gray matter brain volumes. 

Childhood Adversity Impacts Gray Matter Volume and Life Outcomes

A 2014 study, “General and Specific Effects of Early-Life Psychosocial Adversities on Adolescent Grey Matter Volume,” led by Dr. Nicholas Walsh, used brain imaging technology to scan teenagers aged 17-19. The researchers found that those who experienced mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and 11 years of age developed a smaller cerebellum with less gray matter. 

I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about this study, "Childhood Family Problems Can Stunt Brain Development." In a press release, Walsh described the study saying:

We show that exposure in childhood and early adolescence to even mild to moderate family difficulties, not just severe forms of abuse, neglect and maltreatment, may affect the developing adolescent brain. We also argue that a smaller cerebellum may be an indicator of mental health issues later on. Reducing exposure to adverse social environments during early life may enhance typical brain development and reduce subsequent mental health risks in adult life.

In a March 2015 study, “Family Income, Parental Education and Brain Structure in Children and Adolescents,” published in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience a team of investigators from nine different universities identified a correlative link between family income and a child’s brain structure. 

The correlation between brain structure differences and family income were the most dramatic in lower-income families. I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about these findings, “Socioeconomic Factors Impact a Child’s Brain Structure.”

In April 2015, a study "Neuroanatomical Correlates of the Income-Achievement Gap," by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University reported that the academic “achievement gap” between lower-income and higher-income children is reflected in brain anatomy.  I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about these findings, "Why Do Rich Kids Have Higher Standardized Test Scores?"

Most recently, researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison used brain imaging to test whether differences in brain development structure might play a role in the link between childhood poverty and impaired academic performance.

The July 2015 study, “Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement,” was published online in JAMA Pediatrics.

For this study, Seth D. Pollak, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and colleagues analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 389 typically developing children and adolescents ages 4 to 22. The authors measured children's scores on cognitive and academic achievement tests and the gray matter volume of the total brain, frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and hippocampus.

Triff/Shutterstock
Source: Triff/Shutterstock

Children from families with limited financial resources displayed systematic structural differences in the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and hippocampus. The researchers explain their rationale for choosing these brain regions stating:

Focal brain areas include the frontal lobe because previous research has found that this brain region is particularly important for the top-down control of attention, inhibition, emotion regulation, and complex learning; the temporal lobe because of its importance for memory and language comprehension, such as identifying words, relating heard sounds with letters of the alphabet, and attaching meaning to words; and the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays a critical role in processing spatial and contextual information and has been tied to long-term memory functioning. 

Taken together, circuits in these areas of the brain influence critical processes and skills, including reading comprehension, language usage, and associative learning. Dysfunction in these processes may significantly affect scholastic and later occupational success.

The researchers found regional gray matter volumes in the brains of children living below the federal poverty level to differ by as much as 8 to 10 percentage points. These findings suggest that there is a direct correlation between gray matter brain volume and childhood poverty.

On average, children from low-income households scored 4 to 7 points lower on standardized tests. As much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores could be explained by maturational lags in the frontal and temporal lobes.

In a press release, Pollak stated "Development in these brain regions appears sensitive to the child's environment and nurturance. These observations suggest that interventions aimed at improving children's environments may also alter the link between childhood poverty and deficits in cognition and academic achievement." 

Conclusion: How Can We Reduce the Ever-Widening Gap Between the Haves and Have Nots?

Growing up in poverty creates a domino effect that can last throughout a person's lifespan. The triad of poverty, brain development, and low test scores create a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible for someone born in poverty to become upwardly mobile. 

The influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement is directly linked to structural brain development and gray matter volume. Pollak et al conclude that in order to avoid long-term costs of impaired academic functioning, households below 150 percent of the federal poverty level should be targeted for additional resources aimed at improving early childhood environments.

Leveling the playing field of socioeconomic stratification could be initiated by targeting the environmental inequities and stress experienced by children living in poverty. Some possible interventions to offset the impact of growing up in poverty might include: increased enrichment and cognitive stimulation, funding that supports parental nurturance, and minimizing childhood stress that impacts brain structure and function.

Hopefully, this type of neuroscientific research will mobilize parents, educators, policy makers and grassroots organizers to make the elimination of poverty a top priority. Reducing childhood poverty could dramatically improve the trajectory of brain development for children from lower socioeconomic strata. This could help create an upward spiral of possibilities and the opportunity for every child to achieve his or her full human potential. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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