Poverty Negatively Affects Childrens’ Brain Development

Although socioeconomic differences in school readiness and academic performance are well documented, not much is known about the mechanisms behind the influence of poverty on children’s learning and achievement.

In a recent study, anomolous structural brain development and lower standardized test scores were seen in low-income children. Up to an estimated 20 percent in the achievement gap was explained by development lags in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

Seth D. Pollak, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and colleagues assessed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 389 typically developing children and adolescents ages 4 to 22 with comprehensive sociodemographic and neuroimaging data. Researchers analyzed children’s scores on cognitive and academic achievement tests and brain tissue, including gray matter of the total brain, temporal lobe, frontal lobe, and hippocampus.

The authors discovered that regional gray matter volumes in the brains of children below 150 percent of the federal poverty level were 3 to 4 percentage points beneath the developmental norm. For children below the federal poverty level, the gap was larger, at 8 to 10 percentage points.

Children from low-income households, on average, scored four to seven points lower on standardized tests, according to the authors. They estimate that as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores could be explained by developmental lags in the frontal and temporal lobes.

The authors observe that:

“Low-income students are now a majority of schoolchildren attending public schools in the United States. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics show that 51% of students across US public schools were from low-income families in 2013.”

And they conclude:

“Development in these brain regions appears sensitive to the child’s environment and nurturance. These observations suggest that interventions aimed at improving children’s environments may also alter the link between childhood poverty and deficits in cognition and academic achievement.”

Nicole L. Hair, PhD; Jamie L. Hanson, PhD; Barbara L. Wolfe, PhD; Seth D. Pollak, PhD
Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement
JAMA Pediatr. 2015; doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475