How poverty may affect brain development in young children is a relatively new field of inquiry, but studies are emerging that suggest poor children end up with less gray matter by the time they are toddlers than other children. Lack of gray matter in the brain can impede learning by children. For example, researchers believe that frontal lobe gray matter acts as the executive of the brain for such functions as planning, impulse control, and attention spans.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined brain development in 110 healthy children. The children came from the greater Boston and the St. Louis metropolitan regions. The study excluded low-birth-weight babies, newborns that had had intrauterine exposure to tobacco, alcohol etc, children born with medical complications, children with an unknown medical history and other factors.
The sample of children was balanced to mirror the U.S. population in regards to gender, race, ethnicity and income levels of families. The children were divided into three groups: 1) family incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) ; 2) family incomes between 200 and 400 percent of FPL; and 3) family incomes above 400 percent of FPL.
The researchers obtained a total of 338 MRI scans over the course of the study. Fifty-five of the children were followed from infancy in a longitudinal study that involved, on average, 3.1 scans. In discussing the results, the researchers said:
These unique data suggest that low SES [socioeconomic status] environments influence the rate of infant brain development. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers from lower income families began their lives with similar gray matter brain volumes but had lower total gray matter compared with those from middle and high-income households by toddlerhood.
The researchers said that the results confirmed other studies showing that “early environments marked by stress and deprivation negatively influence brain development.” Click Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth to read the entire report.
Another scholar looking at how poverty may affect brain development is Dr. Martha Farah, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Neuroscience and Society. Reporter Elizabeth Landau penned a fascinating profile in CNN Health on Farah and her work.