WATCH: Link Between Institutional Poverty And Children’s Brain Development Found

On April 12, 2016, then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a campaign rally at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York in which he talked about the “physiology of poverty.”

In other words, concern over where and when one’s next meal is coming from, how one will be able to pay bills, keep the lights on, put gas in a car, and maybe even afford mounting medical costs should he, she, or a family member get sick, produces in a person a discernible physiological and cognitive reaction.

Now, according to a nationwide study, we are closer to understanding that income inequality actually has a deleterious effect on children’s brain development.

Dr. Kimberly Noble runs the Neurocognition, Early Experience, and Development Lab at Columbia University in New York. She is one amid myriad neuroscientists and pediatricians finding mounting evidence that poverty alone may diminish a child’s brain growth, not nutrition, language exposure, family stability, or prenatal issues, as previously thought.

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Noble and renowned cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah began studying reasons poor children tended to perform worse academically than their more affluent peers.

Noble said:

“There have been decades of work from social scientists, looking at socioeconomic disparities in broad cognitive outcomes—things like IQ or high school graduation rate. But there’s no high school graduation part of the brain.”

In 2005, Noble, Farah, and colleague Frank Norman, recruited 60 Philadelphia public school kindergarteners and administered a series of cognitive tests linked to specific brain circuits measuring language development and executive functioning, the mental processes responsible for working memory, reasoning, and self-control. They found low-income children performed moderately to significantly worse than their middle-class peers in both areas.

They then applied magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of children across the socioeconomic spectrum. Of 283 MRI Farah looked at, kids from poorer, less-educated families tended to have thinner prefrontal cortex subregions– sections of the brain responsible for executive functioning—than wealthier kids.

Researchers examined MRI scans of 1,099 children and young adults. They found the brains of those with higher family income and more parental education had larger surface areas than poorer, less-educated peers, particularly in regions associated with language and executive functioning.

Data suggests modest increases in family income produces a larger impact on poorer children’s brains than similar increases among wealthier children. Noble’s data also suggests a child’s brain growth falls significantly when his or her family sinks below a certain basic income level. Children from families making less than $25,000 suffer the most, experiencing six percent less brain surface area than peers from families making $150,000 or more.

Seth Pollak, a child psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-authored another large study in which he found strong correlations between household income and gray matter volume in the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and hippocampus.

Children from households below the federal poverty line ($24,250 for a family of four in 2015) possessed 8 to 10 percent less gray matter. Children whose families were slightly better off, with incomes of one and a half times the federal poverty level, showed three to four percent less gray matter than the developmental norm. In Pollak’s study, many poor parents were highly educated, indicating the “maturational lags” their children suffered from stemmed from poverty.

Dr. Noble said:

“I would say that we have strong correlational evidence at this point, but we don’t really have the causal evidence yet.”

That’s her next step.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Dr. Noble cited prior past research indicating a modest $4,000 increase in family income during the first years of a child’s life greatly improves his and her adult earnings, employment, and physical health.

So Dr. Noble and other researchers are planning a nationwide five-year $16 million study by early 2018 to include 1,000 low-income families divided into two groups. One will receive a cash payment of $333 a month ($4,000 a year); the other, $20 a month.

Payments will begin shortly after mothers give birth, and conclude when their children turn three. Researchers will collect data via interviews with the mothers at 12 and 24 months. After the children turn three, they will visit participating labs to test their language, memory, executive functioning, social and emotional development, as well as measure their brain circuitry development through electroencephalography (EEG). (More after the jump.)

If the children who receive the stipend demonstrate healthier brain activity and perform better on cognitive tests than those in the control group, Noble and colleagues will have the first causal evidence between poverty and neural development.

Noble’s team’s funding proposal could hold major implications for “income-enhancement policies,” including the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, to put money directly into poor families’ pockets.

In a March article for Scientific American, Noble wrote:

“Although income may not be the only factor that determines a child’s developmental trajectory. It may be the easiest one to alter from the standpoint of implementing policy—a down payment of sorts to promote the health of a growing child’s brain.”

This Congress and president, though, do not appear interested in passing legislation to assist the underprivileged.

Martha Farah, at least, is optimistic, in spite of Republican opposition.

She stated:

“Basically, this work is going forward without much in the way of focused federal funding.” 

Featured Image: Screenshot Via YouTube Video.

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.