Poverty Hinders Brain Development in Children, Causes Problems Later on in Life


    Researchers have found that a brain scan at the age of three is able to predict a child’s future chance of success in life.

    Unfortunately, the results were not positive. Children with low cognitive test scores for language, behavioral, and movement skills were shown to have less developed brains, which is most likely caused by low stimulation early in life. As a result, these children had a higher chance of becoming criminals, dependent on the welfare system, or chronically ill later on in life.

    While the study was completed in New Zealand and published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, U.S. researchers from Duke University believe this trend has been seen worldwide and that it highlights the importance of early life intervention for children living in poverty.

    Poverty, especially at a young age, can be detrimental for a child’s brain development as the birth-to-three period is the fastest rate of brain development across the entire human life span.

    Of the 1,000 children that were followed during the experiment, the majority were from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the children grew up, 80% became criminals, 78% used prescription medications for a chronic illness, and 66% were enrolled in a social welfare program.

    It is also important to note that poverty was not the only link to a poor future. Even though the New Zealand researchers were put into a separate analysis group, they found that a similar number of middle class children with low cognitive scores experienced difficulties in adulthood as well.

    Additionally, the researchers found that a child’s outcome is not set in stone by the age of three. A child could be potentially successful if they receive help later on in life, such as the Strong African American Families Program provides.

    This SAAF prevention program supports parenting, strengthens family relationships, and has been proven to remove the negative effects on a child’s brain due to poverty. Put in place by a University of Georgia research team, this program investigated how growing up in poverty affected a child’s ability to learn, retain memory, and ability to cope with stress. One way the organization encourages these positive results is by providing families the resources so that one of the parents can stay at home with the children.

    This is important because even though over five million moms and 214,000 dads identified as stay-at-home parents in 2013, the number is much lower in families that live in poverty.

    The researchers used MRI scans to look at the brain development of 59 adults who had participated in SAAF from age 11 and older. They compared these scans to 57 adults who not a part of the SAAF program, and they found that graduates of the SAAF program had larger areas in the brain that promoted stress tolerance, memory, and learning.

    “You can think of a brain like a muscle that we have to strengthen throughout childhood and adolescence,” says Gene H. Brody, Regents Professor at UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences to UGA Research. “When that muscle gets the proper levels of stimulation and protections against stress that a nurturing caregiver provides, people tend to do much better.”

    In addition to the changes in brain development, Brody’s team found that SAAF participants have lower levels of stress hormones in their body, lower levels of inflammation, and do not show signs of premature aging.

    Brody is happy with the results, and explains that SAAF has clear, viable outcomes for those living in poverty.

    “Not all children and adolescents who grow up in poverty experience adverse outcomes. A subset of young people who receive supportive parenting develop resilience to the consequences of poverty,” Brody explains.