Childhood hardship may continue to haunt you for the rest of your life, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have discovered that chronic stress and poverty during childhood may influence brain function and development in adulthood. For some, this leads to problems regulating and processing negative emotions.

While previous research efforts have tied childhood hardship to an increased risk of developing certain health complications and psychiatric issues later in life, the new study is the first to connect such stress and poverty to particular brain areas. The findings, which are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that early adversity can impair an individual’s ability to handle negative emotions like fear and aggression. According to senior author Luan Phan of the UIC’s College of Medicine, the results provide a possible physiological explanation to the link between childhood poverty and brain function.

"Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult," he said in a press release.

To investigate how chronic stress and poverty during childhood influence the brain, Phan and his colleagues enrolled 49 people in an experiment. First, the researches asked participants to supply data on family income, stress exposure, and socio-emotional development during childhood and adulthood. The initial survey revealed that about half of the participants had experienced poverty and some degree of stress at age nine.

Once the subjects had had their socioeconomic and psychological backgrounds established, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to gauge their response to negative stimuli. In subjects who had reported low income and some degree of stress at age nine, the researches recorded increased activity in the amygdala – an area of the brain associated with negative emotions like fear, aggression, and stress. In addition, these subjects also showed less activity in areas around the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to regulate such emotions.

“Adults with lower family income at age 9 exhibited reduced ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity and failure to suppress amygdala activation,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “The information on the developmental timing of poverty effects and neural mechanisms may inform early interventions aimed at reducing health disparities.”

Source: Pilyoung Kim, Gary W. Evans, Michael Angstadt, S. Shaun Ho, Chandra S. Sripada, James E. Swain, Israel Liberzon, and K. Luan Phan. Effects of childhood poverty and chronic stress on emotion regulatory brain function in adulthood. PNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print October 21, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1308240110