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Poverty may stunt development of children’s brains

BySophia Bashir

Jan 28, 2016

Image: Paul Rudd

It has long been acknowledged that poverty can have a detrimental effect on mental health; specifically, several studies have shown a causal relationship between poverty and depression in adults. However, new research would indicate that the way in which key structures in a child’s brain connect may be altered if they are born into a low income family.

In particular, the hippocampus – important for learning and memory, and the amygdala – the regulator of emotion, are thought to be affected: “In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress”, said Deanna M Barch and Gregory Couch, authors of the paper. Of course, this may have a variety of individual and wider public health implications for children raised in poverty.

In prior research by the same authors, a significant difference was found in the the size and volume of the hippocampus and amygdala in children from poorer families. Crucially, it was also found that these differences could be rectified through parental nurturing. This is unfortunately not true for the connectivity changes identified in this study: “Previously, we’ve seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn’t see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids” said co-researcher Joan L Luby. The well established link between children raised in poverty and a higher tendency to psychiatric illness can have a variety of compounding factors (such as higher exposure to cigarette smoke, inadequate educational provision and poor nutrition). Nonetheless, this study may have identified an additional key contributory factor in the relationship, and gives plenty of potential for research into overcoming it.

The statistics on British poverty are startling. On an individual level, men in the most deprived areas of the UK will spend 14 per cent less of their life in good health than their wealthiest counterparts. They also have an average life expectancy that is 9.2 years lower. Another example: this study identified a higher risk of depression for preschoolers living in poverty by the age of 10. Undoubtedly, this also has a variety of economic costs for wider society – perhaps most importantly the future expense of providing the NHS and other services. Continuing action to combat child poverty is therefore essential: “Eradicating child poverty is an absolute priority for this Government, and I have consistently argued that it is not enough to tackle the symptoms without also tackling the underlying causes”, said Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, speaking last June.

Despite this, it is worth remembering that poverty in childhood does not determine the trajectory of a person’s life. The authors were keen also to clarify that, “the relationships between connectivity and depression are more complex and bidirectional, and the present study design cannot definitely address causality”. Nonetheless, these results add to a growing body of evidence which would suggest early childhood experiences can influence, though not dictate, brain development. Therefore, as noted by Barch: “If we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories.”


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