Growing Up Poor and the Development of the Brain

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Growing Up Poor and the Development of the Brain

Jim Windell

           Children who grow up in poor, poverty-stricken families are likely to have cognitive deficits and display more behavioral difficulties than their peers who have more economic advantages. And we know that there are mental health disparities between those who are raised in poor families versus those who grow up in middle class environments.

           But is there a lasting relationship between childhood poverty and brain development?

           That question was raised by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis.  Deanna Barch, chair and professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences, and her colleague, Joan Luby, wanted to know more whether poverty continues to affect people as they enter adulthood. And if so, how?

           Barch and Luby, M.D., the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, conducted a 17-year study of children to try to get answers to their questions. The results of this study were recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

           The two researchers, with other colleagues, collected data for 17 years from families who agreed to participate, including 216 preschoolers who were followed through early adulthood. During the years of the study, the young participants underwent brain imaging to help explain the relationships among their socioeconomic status in preschool. In addition, the participants provided information on a host of outcomes – including cognitive, social and psychiatric – as they entered in early adulthood.

           For the study, the researchers recruited primary caregivers and their 3- to 5-year-old children. They used a specific recruiting questionnaire that would ensure there were more children with elevated symptoms of depression. This allowed the researchers to separate the effects of poverty from existing psychological disorders. The children were interviewed annually, and once they were at least 16, researchers tested them for cognitive function, psychiatric disorders, high-risk behaviors, educational function and social function.

           Furthermore, over the years of the study, the participants also received five brain scans that measured the volumes of local and global brain matter. This gave the researchers a unique insight into whether brain development was a mediating factor. That is, the scans  helped to determine whether it was poverty that caused changes to the brain.

           After controlling for variables including preschool psychopathology and any significant life events throughout the years, the researchers were able to show socioeconomic status in preschool was associated with cognitive function, high-risk behaviors, social function and educational function – even in adolescence and adulthood.

           The critical finding was that kids who were living below the poverty level as preschoolers had smaller volumes of certain subcortical brain regions, including the hippocampus, caudate, putamen, and thalamus. “But also they had less growth in these regions over time,” Barch said. “So they're starting out smaller and not growing as much.”

           Barch pointed out that these brain regions are like important waypoints on the highway of the brain. These regions are particularly sensitive to environmental factors such as pollutants or poor nutrition – factors more likely to affect those living in poverty.

           “Early poverty sadly continues to predict worse outcomes in all of these domains,” said Barch. “That holds true even if a child's socioeconomic status changes before adulthood.”

           Barch went on to say that she and Luby think poverty and all of the things associated with it – such as stress, inadequate nutrition, and less access to health care – impact brain development. “If we can prevent poverty, we can help circumvent some of these negative outcomes,” she said.

           Barch added a footnote. Their data, she says, does not paint a deterministic picture. “Plenty of kids have wonderful outcomes despite growing up in poverty,” she said. That is often because they have had additional support and additional resources.

           “Growing up in poverty makes things harder for people, but it is preventable,” Barch concluded.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Deanna M. Barch, Meghan Rose Donohue, Nourhan M. Elsayed, Kirsten Gilbert, Michael P. Harms, Laura Hennefield, Max Herzberg, Sridhar Kandala, Nicole R. Karcher, Joshua J. Jackson, Katherine R. Luking, Brent I. Rappaport, Ashley Sanders, Rita Taylor, Rebecca Tillman, Alecia C. Vogel, Diana Whalen, Joan L. Luby. (2021). Early Childhood Socioeconomic Status and Cognitive and Adaptive Outcomes at the Transition to Adulthood: The Mediating Role of Gray Matter Development Across 5 Scan Waves. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging; DOI: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.07.002

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