Poverty Shown to Cause Damage to Developing Brains, but Nurturing Can Help

It has long been known that children who grow up in poverty suffer long-lasting negative effects on academic achievement, brain development, and emotional health. New research published in JAMA Pediatrics provides even more compelling evidence that growing up in poverty detrimentally affects the brain.

A team of researchers discovered that low-income children had irregular brain development. This could explain the estimated 20% gap in achievement scores, since these children’s brains lagged developmentally in the frontal and temporal lobes.

The researchers performed MRI scans of 389 developing children and adolescents aged 4 to 22 allowing them to examine brain tissue. They also had complete sociodemographic and neuroimaging data and examined scores on cognitive and academic achievement tests.

The amount of regional gray matter volumes in the children’s brains was lower for those below 150% of the federal poverty level and was even lower for children below the federal poverty level.

Previous research by child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby had shown that changes in the structure of the brain could lead to lifelong problems with learning difficulties, depression, and limitations in the ability to cope with stress.

However, Luby’s research also showed that nurturing during early childhood can alleviate some of these negative effects. Her results suggest that teaching nurturing skills to parents who live below the poverty line might benefit such children for the rest of their lives. Such nurturing had particularly strong effects in the hippocampus.

Considering that 22% of American children live in poverty, this research has major policy implications and is actionable for public policy. It is rare that such feasible and cost-effective solutions to such severe problems are available and within reach.