Children that have been born and brought up in poor conditions are found to have a lesser cognitive and functional ability of the brain in comparison to their peers born in a better-off household. Plenty of research has been done in the past that studies the physical effects and mental health disparities associated with poor living conditions.
But researchers Deanna Barch, head of the department of psychology at the University of Washington, and Mae S. Ludwig, Professor of Children Psychiatry at the School of Medicine wanted to know whether growing up in poor households had an effect on brain functionality as the children enter adulthood.
To answer their questions, these researchers collected data for 17 years from families who participated. This included 216 preschoolers who were followed through their early adulthood.
During the course of the study, the young participants underwent brain imaging to help establish some kind of relationships among their socioeconomic status in preschool and provided information on a number of outcomes including cognitive, social, and psychiatric, in early adulthood.
In the results, they found that sadly, early poverty did cause worse outcomes in each inspected domain. This holds true even when the socioeconomic status of the studied subjects was changed before entering adulthood.
The researchers said that not only poverty but things associated with it like stress, inadequate nutrition, less access to health care also played an important role in affecting the child’s brain development. If we can control poverty, we can circumvent some of these negative outcomes.
For the study, primary caregivers and their 3- to 5-year-old children were recruited. The researchers used a specific recruiting questionnaire and made sure there were more children enrolled in this study who have elevated symptoms of depression. This would later help them to separate the effects of poverty from existing psychological disorders.
All the children recruited were interviewed annually and once they turned 16, researchers tested them for cognitive function, psychiatric disorders, high-risk behaviors, educational function, and social function.
During the 17 years of monitoring the subjects, the participants received five brain scans that measured the volumes of brain matter and gave the researchers a unique insight into whether brain development was a mediating factor.
Unfortunately, the brain scans did show some physical signs of poverty. The children who were living below the poverty level as preschoolers had smaller volumes of certain subcortical brain regions, including the hippocampus, caudate, putamen, and thalamus.
These regions are not primarily associated with cognitive or emotional functions but all the information must travel through them in order to reach a higher functioning center of the brain.
The results were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.