Poverty Affects Children’s Brain Development

Children from families with few economic resources see their mental health affected.

Growing up in a poor family negatively affects the cognitive development of children. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics , which compared MRI scans of children born to families with lower and higher purchasing power, found lower volumes of gray matter (about 10 percent) in the  brains of children born to poorer households.

Negative consequences of poverty

The  European crisis has hit Spain hard, which has seen 12.8 million people (27.3 percent of its population) at risk of poverty or exclusion. Since the crisis began in 2008, 1,320,216 people have fallen into this vulnerable situation.

Many studies have focused on the relationship between poverty and the behaviors of alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, and so on. People living in poverty experience many destructive behaviors due to intense emotional distress and the awareness of having been forgotten or despised by the system. 

But this study, published in JAMA Pediatrics , confirms previous research that has shown that children living in poverty see their cognitive ability affected : they perform less in school, have lower scores on intelligence tests and do not achieve a educational level as high as their wealthier peers.

Poverty physically affects the brain

Despite the fact that poverty has devastating social effects, this study seems to indicate that it would also have a physical effect on the brain, since poverty is associated with less gray matter (10 percent less) in the brain of a child born in a family with fewer economic resources.

The research was led by Elizabeth Sowell of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Kimberly Noble of Columbia University. The study found that the brain of a child in a family that earns less than $25,000 a year contains 6% less gray matter than that of a child whose family earns $150,000 a year.

Children living in families where their income level is below the federal poverty level have up to 10 percent less gray matter. The 2015 federal poverty level in the United States is $24,250 for a family of four.

This study confirms the need to take measures against poverty

The researchers analyzed MRI scans and demographics of 389 American children, ages 4 to 22, and assessed the amount of gray matter in the entire brain, as  well as the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus. The data was collected between November 2001 and August 2007.

The conclusions of this study, added to the existing literature on the negative consequences of poverty, provide scientific evidence of the need to take measures regarding the situation of poverty in which many individuals live, as this situation negatively affects the development of the brain, and confirms the need for early interventions to reduce the risk to which children born to poor families are exposed.

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