There are many reasons to be alarmed by the 12 percent overall family poverty rate in the United States. But one particularly poignant repercussion of growing up poor is the toll it can have on a child’s brain development.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis revealed that children growing up in a family that is below the poverty line and raised by parents who were sub par in nurturing had significantly less gray and white matter in their brain. This anatomical change can negatively impact intelligence and communication between brain regions. These children were also found to have smaller amygdalas, an almond-shaped brain structure involved with fear and emotions, as well as a reduced hippocampus, which underlies learning and memory. But despite this sad trend the study provided a silver lining by discovering that a more nurturing family setting can lessen these damaging brain changes, which often manifest as depression, reduced learning aptitude and inability to cope with stress.
Interestingly, principal investigator, Joan Luby, and colleagues reported in JAMA Pediatrics the extent that parents nurture their kids had a greater impact on the volume of a child’s hippocampus than a lack of money. “[E]xposure to poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children,” Luby explained in a press release. “What’s new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience.”
Researchers assessed various aspects of how parents interacted with their child. For example, parents living below the federal poverty level exhibited more stress and a greater inability to nurture their kid in a situation where a child was given a gift-wrapped package they weren’t allowed to open while the parent filled out paperwork — perhaps a classic waiting room scenario. This highlights how socioeconomic status can affect how adults handle things like stress, and, as a result, how their children develop different because of it.
“Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons,” Luby said. “They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money or food…They may be facing many stresses, and some don’t have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don’t have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances.” Other sources of stress that poor children often endure include living in neighborhoods that are more violent and have more vehicular traffic. They also tend to move residences twice as often and face eviction five times as often, according to Hofstra University’s teacher of applied ethics, Arthur Dobrin.
But then there's that silver lining. Because not only does this study show that the impact of poverty on a child’s brain development is not inevitable, it also shows that a nurturing home environment can have a tremendous positive impact. Luby argues that parents need to be empowered to provide this type of home, and he underlined the importance of in investing in public health prevention programs that concentrate on parental nurturing skills and how they coincide particularly sensitive stages of development.
Other experts agree. "Advances in both neuroscience and genetics have increasingly shed light on how early experience 'gets under the skin'," Charles Nelson of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child in Boston, Massachusetts, commented in an editorial that accompanied the study. "[E]arly experience weaves its way into the neural and biological infrastructure of the child in such a way as to impact developmental trajectories and outcomes.