In a study with weighty implications for Black families, it was found that poverty adversely impacts early brain development, hamstringing children from lower-income households with disparate rates of development in two key areas of the brain.
The study, “Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth,” was conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and recently published on the website of the online journal PLOS ONE.
“We’ve known that poverty can have long lasting consequences for childhood development and learning, and this study provides concrete evidence that poverty can change how the brain itself grows,” said Dr. John H. Gilmore, a co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry at UNC, in a statement.
The researchers used brain scans provided by the National Institute of Health’s MRI Study of Normal Brain Development, and analyzed them using a method they developed for measuring children’s brain volumes.
Children born to mothers who smoked or drank during pregnancy, who experienced birth complications and head injuries, or had a family psychiatric history and other issues were excluded from the analysis.
The study found no significant differences in the brain volume of children from middle-income and affluent families. But, by age 4, the analysis showed, children who grow up in families that live 200 percent below the poverty line, have less total gray matter and less brain tissue in the frontal and parietal lobes than children from higher-income households. Gray matter is tissue that is critical for developing the capabilities of cognition or the processing of information and executive functions such as planning, impulse control and maintaining attention.
The disparity in this particular brain tissue was associated with the emergence of disruptive behaviors later on in the children’s development, the study concluded.
“As infants aged—and presumably had increased exposure to the effects of their environments— the differences in brain volume between poor children and those with greater resources widened,” the report stated. “Smaller volumes in this brain tissue were related to greater behavior problems in the pre-school years.”
The authors said several factors could contribute to the lower rate of brain development among indigent children including less mental stimulation and access to enriching conversation; poor nutrition; less access to books, computers and other learning resources; parental stress and unhealthy physical environments and more.
“For these reasons, it is not surprising that individuals raised in poor families have elevated rates of learning, behavioral, mental health and physical health problems that persist into adulthood,” the authors concluded.
According to the Census Bureau, children (16.4 million in 2010) are disproportionately represented among the nation’s indigent—they are 24 percent of the total population, but 36 percent of the poor population. And Black children are more likely to live in poverty than their peers-- 38.2 of African-American children were poor in 2010, three times the rate of White children.