Growing up in poverty can hinder childhood achievement and affect life trajectory. Researchers in fields, such as economics and social sciences, have extensively documented these differences, but can neuroscientists develop a more complete understanding of poverty’s reach by studying the brains of infants and young children? If neuroscience research can determine the roots of the disparities by looking inside the brain, we may be able to gain a unique perspective on interventions that lessen these differences.
On October 18, a group of leading experts at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago held a roundtable discussion about how this ambitious goal might be achieved, with the objective of documenting the effects of poverty on the brain and providing evidence-based interventions to drive positive policy change. But even defining the problem is challenging, as most studies only show correlations between brain structure and poverty. Natalie Hiromi Brito, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University Medical Center whose research was detailed in Nature Neuroscience, presented evidence that children growing up in lower income families had less brain surface area and attenuated cognitive skills. But it is still not known whether these differences in cognitive skills and brain structure result directly from living in poverty. Brito suggested that a program that gives income supplements to economically disadvantaged parents could provide more definitive answers on whether additional income has a positive effect on infant and toddler cognitive outcomes.
Poor children often face a combination of deficits in language and selective attention skills, which is the ability to tune out unwanted distractions and focus on classroom activities. The Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has partnered with local organizations such as Head Start of Lane County to design a program to build childhood selective attention skills, stress management skills, and parenting skills in participating families over eight weekly sessions. A randomized controlled trial of this program will look at whether this intervention is more effective than Head Start alone and the lab is now working on implementing the program in local classrooms. Another attempt to bring real-world applicability to this field of research uses computer simulations to assess whether certain programs to help young children will be effective—an approach being pursued by Sebastián Lipina at the National University of San Martin in Argentina.
Possible benefits of looking inside the brain must be weighed against the risk of suggesting that differences in the brain of children from families with different income levels are somehow hard-wired or unchangeable. Eric Pakulak of the University of Oregon said that he often emphasizes that neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change as it is exposed to new experiences, is a double-edged sword. The brain is vulnerable to harmful influences like poverty early in development, but it is also amenable to being molded to develop along one developmental pathway or another beyond the first five years of life. The current focus on the birth to age five range may be missing children who may benefit from help later in their lives, said Silvia Bunge of the University of California at Berkeley, who co-chaired the session with John Gabrieli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There aren’t these hard windows…after which you can’t change the system,” she says. “It’s just that it takes more effort to prop it open, to open up the brain to plasticity as you get older.” The ever-growing ability of neuroscience to monitor the brains of even the youngest children can help tease out the still-elusive effects of poverty and perhaps lead to evidence-based interventions to ameliorate its effects.
Poverty Shrinks Brains from Birth