Though the experience of growing up in poverty has long been associated with negative emotional and cognitive wellbeing in children, the causes and mechanisms that produce this correlation have until now remained poorly understood. However, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis may have discovered a direct physiological link between economic disadvantage and neurological function, providing new insight into the role that poverty plays in a child’s development.
Publishing their findings in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study authors assessed the behavior of 105 young children over a period of 12 years, and found that pre-schoolers from poorer backgrounds were considerably more likely to exhibit symptoms of clinical depression by the time they reached school age.
By then conducting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on their participants, the researchers discovered that this condition was accompanied by weaker than normal connections between certain brain regions. In particular, the hippocampus and amygdala – both of which are associated with regulating mood, memory, learning and emotion – were found to be weakly connected to a number of other regions.
A clear correlation was found between the level of connectivity and financial status, with children from poorer families being more likely to develop weak connectivity in the brain. As such, the researchers state that this connectivity is what mediates the relationship between poverty and depression in young children.
fMRI scans revealed that the hippocampus and amygdala were more weakly connected to other brain regions in children from poorer backgrounds. Credit: Deanna Barch
Though more research is needed in order to determine precisely how economic disadvantage produces poor brain connectivity, it has been suggested that factors such as stress and poor nutrition may play a significant role on hindering neurological development. For instance, previous studies have indicated that children who grow up in such conditions tend to develop lower than average volumes of information-processing tissue called gray matter. This, in turn, has been linked with poorer academic performance.
However, the researchers behind this latest study insist that their findings provide a more useful measure of how poverty affects children, since they relate to the brain’s functionality rather than just its structure. “We wanted to see whether poverty also influenced the connectivity of the amygdala and hippocampus, as well as the volume of the amygdala and hippocampus, which is indeed what we found,” remarked coauthor Deanna Barch in a statement.
Speaking to IFLScience, Barch explained that in order to ameliorate this effect, “we need to intervene early in child’s life because these changes are occurring very early on.” As such, she calls for greater efforts to “support the development of effective emotion regulation and cognitive control in preschool.” Strategies for doing so, she says, should focus on reducing stress, improving maternal nurturing, and creating a more enriching, stimulating environment for children.