Poverty can cause a lot of challenges for a child. Parents in poverty tend to be out working most of the time, and they’re stressed by inconsistent income when they aren’t working. The social support network of parents tends to be smaller. Stress accumulates and indirectly passes down to the children. Children of poorly educated parents hear fewer words and tend to receive commands rather than questions. There are fewer books in poor households. Nutrition, hygeine and sleep can also be negatively affected by poverty.
These environmental conditions can hinder an infant’s brain development. This is the finding of a new study called “Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth,” coauthored in part by Seth Pollak, Barbara Wolfe and Jamie Hanson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this, the researchers compared the brain development of children from low, middle and high-income families.
“You can see that these three groups of kids are starting kindergarten with differences in brain development,” said professor of psychology Seth Pollak. “And that’s probably going to influence how they’re able take advantage of resources being made available there.”
The three professors teamed up with scientists at the University of North Carolina who had developed new software capable of reading scans from the infant brain, a surprisingly difficult task.
“It’s hard to get babies in a scanner,” Pollak said. “But also, our brains when we’re very young aren’t clearly differentiated. When you look at an adult brain, you can really make out the various areas, and in babies, it’s all kind of mushed together.”
Scientists then recruited pregnant women in the greater Saint Louis and Boston metropolitan areas. A demographically representative sample of children up to age four were scanned, an average of 3.1 times.
The researchers found differences in the development of gray matter through time. Gray matter is a type of brain tissue that includes most neural cell bodies and neuron connections, known as synapses. It is responsible for decision making, impulse control, memory, muscle function, sensory perception, speech and emotion.
They found kids in poor households create gray matter more slowly than their rich and middle-income peers, even though they begin life with the same amount.
It’s not clear which specific aspects of poverty cause this effect. The negatives of poverty tend to be packaged together; a household with poor vocabularly often won’t have stellar nutrition. It is hard to separate the variables.
Life in poverty is generally less stimulating than the life of the middle and upper classes, and it’s more stressful. Brains are adaptive organs, processing complex and varied stimuli to adjust to their surroundings. They don’t function well if they aren’t given enough stimuli, and stress also tends to slow them down.
These findings reinforce the child’s need for a supportive environment. They tell us that poverty is not a genetic disease. It means that a child born into poverty is not inevitably locked into the poverty cycle. That is, if the child is given the proper support.
Furthermore, a poor kid in kindergarten—disadvantaged by brain physiology—may be able to turn things around.
“There’s no indication that this early trajectory is putting these kids on a pathway that’s not changeable or reversible,” Pollak said. “Human brains are incredibly responsive to their experience. And that should mobilize us to say, ‘well, what can we do,’ at a very early stage in life, to help everyone reach their true potential.”
Pollak and his colleagues plan to continue to follow the children through adolescence, in order to gauge the long-term effects of poverty on gray matter formation.
In the meantime, poor children can be given special attention in school. They might require enhanced cognitive stimulation, or more nurturing, or better nutrition, or all of those things. More research is needed before poor children can be given specific treatments to close the gray matter gap.
One thing is clear: Poverty is a real problem facing children in the United States. A child is not responsible for the circumstances she is born into, circumstances that put her at a disadvantage, both economically and cognitively. Poverty is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.
The study can be found at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0080954