New Studies Reveal How Poverty Changes a Child’s Brain

Kimberly Noble, pediatrician and cognitive neuroscientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, uses MRI scans to examine brain function and development in children and has found socioeconomical differences in status prove to create differences in a child’s overall brain structure and maturation.

During childhood and adolescence, cognitive development grows dramatically. Noble and her team focused on a group of 1,099 individuals between the ages of 3 and 20 years old and took a closer look at the surface area of their brains. It was found that children from lower-income families had comparatively larger differences in surface area, while children from higher-income families had smaller differences. “These relationships were most prominent in regions supporting language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills,” reads Noble’s findings, printed in Nature Neuroscience.

In this study, it was implied that “income relates most strongly to brain structure among the most disadvantaged children.” Meaning, poverty and the stresses it produces, a lack of access to good education, and other advantages that come with being financially capable may cause discrepancies in brain structure.

Studies of the brain, and the mapping of environmental effects upon it, are still very new. We know very little about the brain and how it works. The journal Nautilus asked Noble if she thought that this research would be used to prove that poor children are damaged and don’t matter, Noble answered:

“As neuroscientists, we believe that nothing could be further from the truth. We know that the developing brain is very malleable. We believe that the differences we reported are largely the result of experience, and have every reason to believe that by changing those experiences—through preventive measures or interventions—we can change children’s trajectories for the better.”