Child poverty im­pacts brain devel­op­ment: study

The China Post - - LIFE -

Chil­dren of richer, bet­ter-ed­u­cated par­ents have big­ger brains and more cog­ni­tive skills than their less-for­tu­nate peers, but so­cial help and teach­ing can help to over­come the dif­fer­ences, a study pub­lished on Mon­day said.

The dis­tinc­tions were most pro­found in re­gions of the brain sup­port­ing lan­guage and read­ing, ex­ec­u­tive func­tions like mem­ory and de­ci­sion- mak­ing, and spa­tial skills, ex­perts in the United States re­ported in the jour­nal Na­ture Neu­ro­science.

The im­pact was “mean­ing­ful in terms of the way the brain is work­ing in th­ese kids,” study co-au­thor El­iz­a­beth Sow­ell of the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia told AFP.

“We found that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween brain (struc­ture) and fam­ily in­come im­pacted kids’ cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing,” Sow­ell said by email.

The study stressed that so­lu­tions lay within reach, in­clud­ing bet­ter school lunches, mo­ti­vated teach­ing and com­mu­nity pro­grams to en­cour­age chil­dren.

“It is not too late to think about how to im­pact re­sources that en­rich the de­vel­op­men­tal en­vi­ron­ment, that in turn help the brain wire it­self to­gether,” Sow­ell said.

So­cioe­co­nomic in­equal­i­ties have long been seen as linked to dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment, but the ex­tent to which it af­fected brain struc­ture was un­clear un­til now.

In what is claimed to be the big­gest study of its kind, Sow­ell’s team tested 1,099 typ­i­cally de­vel­op­ing boys and girls aged three to 20, from di­verse pop­u­la­tion groups.

They com­pared par­ents’ in­come and ed­u­ca­tion level to chil­dren’s brain sur­face area, mea­sured by scans, as well as their cog­ni­tive test scores.

They cor­rected for other po­ten­tially con­found­ing in­flu­ences on brain struc- ture such as ge­netic an­ces­try.

Aside from the dif­fer­ences ob­served be­tween the brain sur­face area of chil­dren in the low­est and high­est in­come lev­els, there was also a strik­ing dis­par­ity be­tween in­come groups at the lower end of the scale.

There was a big­ger dif­fer­ence, for ex­am­ple, be­tween the re­sults in kids from fam­i­lies earn­ing ei­ther US$30,000 or US$50,000 per year, than those earn­ing ei­ther US$90,000 or US$110,000.

Sow­ell said the rea­son be­hind that dif­fer­ence was un­clear.

“It seems rea­son­able to spec­u­late that re­sources af­forded by the more af­flu­ent (nu­tri­tion, child care, schools etc.) help ‘wire’ the brain through devel­op­ment,” she said.

“The most im­por­tant point we want to con­vey ... is not ‘if you are poor, your brain will be smaller, and there is noth­ing that can be done about it.’ That is ab­so­lutely not the mes­sage!”

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