Childhood Poverty Can Damage Brain Connectivity and Function

Altered brain connectivity in poor children increases their risk of depression.

Posted Jan 16, 2016

Deanna Barch used with permission.
Functional MRI scans show areas in the brains of poor children with normal connectivity highlighted in red and blue. Weakened connectivity is shown in green. The areas in green are among several areas—detailed in other brain scans—where connections are weakened in children raised in poverty.
Source: Deanna Barch used with permission.

A new study by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis has identified changes in poor children's brain connectivity that are directly linked to growing up in poverty. These alterations in brain connectivity increase a child's risk of suffering clinical depression

The researchers found that key structures in the brain are connected differently in children who grow up in poverty compared to the brain connectivity of their more affluent peers. More specifically, the researchers found that both the hippocampus and amygdala connect differently to other brain regions in poor children than they do in children growing up in higher-income households.

The January 2016 study, “Effect of Hippocampal and Amygdala Connectivity on the Relationship Between Preschool Poverty and School-Age Depression,” was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Poverty Weakens Brain Connectivity and Increases Risk of Clinical Depression

Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons
Hippocampus in red. 
Source: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons

The weakness of these brain connections directly correlated to the degree of poverty to which a child was exposed. The poorer a child's family, the weaker the connectivity of the hippocampus and amygdala was to other brain regions. Also, the poorer a child was in preschool, the more likely he or she was to have symptoms of clinical depression after reaching school age.

The researchers note that children raised in poverty tend to have poorer cognitive function, lower test scores, and are at higher risk for psychiatric illnesses, including depression and antisocial behaviors.

The researchers hypothesize that factors such as stress, adverse environmental exposures—including lead, cigarette smoke, and poor nutrition—along with limited educational opportunities, coalesce and contribute to potential problems in adulthood. In a press release, first author Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., said,

"Our past research has shown that the brain's anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty. In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress."

Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons
Amygdala in red. 
Source: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons

These changes in brain connectivity also increase the risk of clinical depression. The children in the study who were poor as preschoolers were more likely to be depressed at age 9 or 10.

In a press release, Joan L. Luby, M.D., a co-investigator in the study, said, "Poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children. Previously, we've seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn't see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids."

The Richest 0.1% of Americans Have Almost As Much Wealth As the Bottom 90%

As the socioeconomic divide between the 'haves' and 'have nots' grows ever wider, the new research on the detrimental impact of childhood poverty on brain development should serve as a call-to-action for us to reduce economic disparity and increase the minimum wage. 

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A full-time minimum wage employee working forty hours a week earns $15,080 annually, before taxes. The current federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four.

According to the 2014 U.S. Census the official poverty rate was 14.8% and there were 46.7 million Americans living in poverty. However, the poverty rate in 2014 for chil­dren under age 18 was a staggering 21.1%. More than one in five American children are currently living in poverty.

In recent years, I've written extensively about the detrimental impact of childhood poverty in a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts. In April 2014, I wrote a post, "Social Disadvantage Creates Genetic Wear and Tear," based on findings that growing up in a disadvantaged environment creates epigenetic changes that shorten telomeres, which speeds up cellular aging and increases the risk of premature health problems. 

The co-author of that study, Dr. Colter Mitchell, concluded that from a social science and public policy perspective, he hopes this type of research motivates people to make reducing childhood social disadvantages a top priority. Colter said, "We can pay now, or we can pay more later. But we will pay for the effects of early life disadvantage at some point."

Conclusion: It's Never Too Late to Change Brain Structure and Connectivity

Based on decades of research on neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, I'm optimistic that the architecture of someone's brain—and the neural connectivity of his or her mind—is never set in stone. Hopefully, future research will find more effective ways to improve brain connectivity for the millions of American children who are marginalized, and disadvantaged, by growing up in poverty. 

Deanna Barch is optimistic, too. She emphasizes that the link between poverty and brain differences doesn't necessarily lock a child into a difficult life for eternity. In a press release, Barch concludes, 

"Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development. Poverty doesn't put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain. And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories."

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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