A Novel Effort to See How Poverty Affects Young Brains
It’s well established that growing up in poverty correlates with disparities in educational achievement, health and employment. But an emerging branch of neuroscience asks how poverty affects the developing brain.
Over the past 15 years, dozens of studies have found that children raised in meager circumstances have subtle brain differences compared with children from families of higher means. On average, the surface area of the brain’s outer layer of cells is smaller, especially in areas relating to language and impulse control, as is the volume of a structure called the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory.
These differences don’t reflect inherited or inborn traits, research suggests, but rather the circumstances in which the children grew up. Researchers have speculated that specific aspects of poverty — subpar nutrition, elevated stress levels, low-quality education — might influence brain and cognitive development. But almost all the work to date is correlational. And although those factors may be at play to various degrees for different families, poverty is their common root. A continuing study called Baby’s First Years, started in 2018, aims to determine whether reducing poverty can itself promote healthy brain development.