Those attending the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscientists were treated to several presentations on studies that link a child’s home environment with their brain development. But the one that drew the most attention was the analysis that showed that there exists a very specific correlation between the income and education level of parents and development of certain portion of the child’s brain.
The study, led by Columbia University assistant professor of pediatrics Kimberly Noble, working with Elizabeth Sowell from the University of Southern California, shows that there are substantial differences in brain scans between children of parents who are low-income and have low levels of academic attainment when compared to those whose parents both earn more and have more degrees hanging on the wall.
Noble analyzed brain images of subjects who had been raised across the socioeconomic spectrum. Their parents had between eight and 21 years of education and incomes that ranged from below poverty level to more than six times above it (or about $140,000) for a family of four.
She found that the hippocampal region, which is important in learning and memory function, had a larger volume for subjects who were raised by parents with higher incomes.
Another finding showed that children who grew up in an environment filled with stress showed more development in their amygdala, the brain center that processes stress signals. This finding was exactly reversed in high-income, high-education households. Children from families that were well educated and financially secure had markedly smaller amygdalae.
Still, speaking with The Washington Post’s Janice D’Arcy, Noble disavowed the conclusion that her findings prove that being brought up in a disadvantaged household stymied brain development.
“Certainly, income or education alone are not what causes the differences. Rather, it’s likely it the things that income and education are associated with have something to do with it. We know that providing children with cognitive stimulation and emotional warmth are important: talking to children, bringing them to the library, being warm and nurturing. You can provide cognitive stimulation in the absence of high income.”
She said that those who seek to claim that a low-income, less-educated environment is inherently deleterious to children will have drawn the wrong conclusions from her research. Instead, the focus should be on bringing up children in a household as free from stress as possible. As they are growing up and their brains are developing, children should feel safe to indulge their natural curiosity, something that will do much to help their brains develop fully.
Still, children will be helped if states invest in programs that reduce poverty levels and increase educational access for parents.
As to what the parents can take away from her results?
Noble says that even when confronted with educational and economic obstacles, parents should make the effort to communicate and encourage their kids. Simply talking contributes much at a time when the brain absorbs knowledge at a rapid rate.