University Research Finds a Link Between Poverty and Lower Brain Development
Filed in Research & Studies on August 10, 2015
Annual data from The College Board show that there is a direct correlation between family income and scores on the SAT college entrance examination. Other studies have demonstrated a direct link between income and academic achievement. This is of particular importance to African Americans because the median income of Black families in the United States is only 60 percent of the median income of non-Hispanic Whites and Black families are three times as likely to be in poverty as non-Hispanic White families.
Students from lower socioeconomic groups do not have the same advantages in access to books, broadband internet services, tutoring, private schools, education games etc. But new research conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, Duke University, and the University of Wisconsin, shows that the differences in academic achievement between high income and low-income families are not just related to resources but may have a basis in biology. Using MRI scans of a large group of children and young adults, researchers found physiological differences in the brain. Children from the lowest income levels had less gray matter. They found that developmental differences in the frontal and temporal lobes may explain up to 20 percent of low-income children’s academic deficits.
Researchers are quick to point out that these differences not innate, rather the result of environmental factors that impact the lives of low-income children. The authors write, “Our work suggests that specific brain structures tied to processes critical for learning and educational functioning are vulnerable to the environmental circumstances of poverty (such as stress, limited stimulation, and nutrition). If so, it would appear that children’s potential for academic success is being reduced at young ages by these circumstances.”
Nicole Hair, Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy Research in the department of health management and policy at the School of Public Health of the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study, said that “we find children from low-income backgrounds display structural differences in several areas of the brain — areas that have been connected with tasks thought to be critical for achievement in school.”
“The brain is malleable,” Dr. Hair added. “We know that it responds to environmental conditions — positively and negatively — and continues to develop into young adulthood. It’s not that these children’s outcomes are predetermined. With intervention, it may be possible to alter this link.”
The article “Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement,” was published on the website of JAMA Pediatrics. It may be accessed here.