Research: Poverty Linked to Decreased Brain Development in Kids


Researchers have found that the effect of poverty on children’s brains may be the reason for the lower scores on standardized tests of poor students compared to their wealthier peers. Andrew M. Seaman, writing for Reuters, quotes the study’s senior author Seth Pollak on the purpose for continuing research:

“What was already discovered is there is an achievement gap between poor children and middle-class children. Even when they move to better neighborhoods, children growing up in poor families tend to do less well in school than their less poor counterparts.”

Pollak added that in recent years poverty has been linked to slower brain development in young people.  Pollak and his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in their study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, that the approximate 20% difference in test scores between poor and middle-class children could be a result of decreased brain development in the “upper-front and side regions of the brain known as the frontal and temporal lobes, respectively.”

The study’s researchers examined brain images and standardized test scores of 389 children and young adults age four to 22 who had participated in a study by the US National Institutes of Health between the years of 2001 and 2007. Children with risk factors for poor brain development, signaled by such issues as low birth weights and attention disorders, were left out of the analysis.

Pollak said the result was a comparison of the healthiest children in the country who differed mainly in terms of family income.

“Still, there is a brain difference and an achievement difference between these (poor) children and middle-class children,” he said. “Accounting for 20 or 25 percent of something complex like how well kids are doing in achievement tests is huge,” Pollak said, adding their estimate may be conservative.

This new research is an addition to the current body of scienec, especially regarding “the idea of how critical certain ingredients are to healthy, growing children,” said Dr. Joan Luby, director of the Early Emotional Development Program at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She added that young children need nurturing and other important supports from their closest caregivers, but these contributions are not emphasized as strongly by society.

Children who live in poverty often come to school unprepared due to tiredness or hunger, Pollak said. They are not ready to learn no matter what the teachers does. Now that this information has been confirmed by the research, Luby explains that policymakers must begin to make the necessary changes, which she says must include connecting new parents with nurses for guidance and support. Pollak and Luby say the interventions cannot occur without support and funding.

Pollak says that “gray matter” is where the brain’s neuronal cells are located, and this is where seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control occur. It was found that children living in families that were at 150% of the federal poverty level, or $36,375 for a family of four, had 3% to 4% less gray matter in significant regions of the brain than the average child. Study authors found that 51% of US public school kids came from low-income families in 2013.

These are the young people who score an average of four to seven points lower on standardized tests. The reasons for this include less of the type of stimulation from their parents and environment that helps the brain grow, meaning they are hearing fewer new words or having fewer opportunities to read or play games. The development of the brain can also be affected by high stress levels, lack of sleep, overcrowding, and poor nutrition.

Molly Walker, writing for MedPage Today, said brain development problems seem to be concentrated in the poorest households.

“I was surprised that there wasn’t more of a continuum, where the poorer a child was the worse they did, and the wealthier they [were] the better,” Pollak, told MedPage Today via e-mail. “Instead, it seems like there is a critical point.”

Pollak said that poverty was once thought of as a social policy issue, but this study seems to point out that it is a biomedical issue. Luby continued by stating that the research provides strong evidence that the issue is now actionable for public policy.

The scientists say that poor children are facing a double whammy, since they are experiencing impaired brain development and they often go to the worst schools. The report shows that an even playing field needs to be established so every child has the opportunity to benefit from their educational experience.

John Tozzi of BloombergBusiness writes that John Gabrieli, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist who co-authored a separate article published in April about links between gray matter, income, and test scores, says there is plenty of room for brain plasticity all the way to adulthood – and that children can catch up given the right circumstances.