University Research Finds a Link Between Poverty and Lower Brain Development

brain_f2Annual 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.


Comments (11)

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  1. Carl B. says:

    There is a term for this research phenomenon that has been used in both sociology and psychology literature and it is call Cultural Familial Retardation. The term explains the situations of children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds where they are deprived of educational enrichment due to their setting. And it is not just resources; poor dieting, lack of outdoor play, trauma, distress, pollution, and led from old paint are added contributors as well.

  2. Michael says:

    This so-called research and its findings is nothing more than a long line and continuation of scientific racism and eugenics in the 21st century. Further, its not too surprising the University of Michigan, Duke University, along with the University of Wisconsin are the authors of this study considering their own historical and current disparate treatment of native born Blacks. In other words, for those who incessantly profess their ‘superiority’ over another people (in this instance, native born Blacks) are merely admitting their own ‘inferiority’.

    • Alex Willis says:

      Hi Michael,
      I don’t think this is “Scientific Racism” and the researchers did not specify the race of the children sampled in the study. Infact, race was mentioned by the publisher of this site. So, your aggressive response was based out of conjecture. It’s not about keening in on race and calling it racism. I look at from a social class point-of-view. Poverty affects people from all walks of life. It is true that there are disproportionate number of African American living at or below the poverty line; I believe the percentage hovers in the 30s. I say, instead of looking at this study and saying there is some racist element to it, how can members of the African American community use this research and other scientific studies on racial and social class disparities and apply it to make positive changes and dismantle the on going rhetorical stereotypes in the AA community. I believe that is what the owner of this website intended to use this for; as a platform to feed news and research findings to members of the AA community to come together and figure out solutions.

  3. Michael says:

    Re: Alex;

    It appears that you’re woefully misinterpreting my contextual usage of the term ‘scientific racism’. That’s one on the main challenges within academia is who defines “what” and or so long as it doesn’t disrupts the generally accepted Eurocentric paradigm. You noted that my response was “aggressive” is a clear indication of your acquiescence to political correctness along with neoliberalism. Further, you have the chutzpah to assert that you view this from a “social class point-of-view” also reveals your intellectual dishonesty or maybe naiveté about the realities of American racism that’s inculcated within the fabric of higher education and its research.

    Last point, it’s quite apparent that you support this research study and its inherently biased findings along with its ‘Margaret Sanger’ and ‘Francis Galton’ like ideological leanings.

    • Alex Willis says:


      Maybe it’s because I am a black male, in his twenties, who is apart of the millennial generation. Or, that my “neoliberalism” stems from attending a PWI somewhere northeastern region of the country. I don’t know if this study includes some anglo-saxon underpinnings to it. All I know is that I can’t be cynical about every study that is revealed.
      What I am just saying is, if this study has some relevance to it, what can be done to change the situation of children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who happens to be children of color? That is the message that I am trying to convey.

  4. Michael says:

    Re: Alex;

    Again, it’s quite obvious that you missed my previous points. You need to realize that ones chronological age along with attending an HWCU(Historically White College and University) in the northeastern part of the country is no excuse for incessantly defending Eurocentric thoughts and paradigms. Further, simply because one has the capacity to critically interrogate academic work does not imply one is cynical, but, merely a critical thinker.

    In my opinion, the Black community is in dire need of critical thinkers and not those who blindly accept status quo and politically correct mantra. More important, one can fervently embrace neoliberalism regardless of their chronological age, geographic location, and academic institution he/she attends.

    Last point, I would venture in saying that you’re so politically correct minded that you didn’t have the chutzpah to articulate “White underpinnings” as compared “Anglo-Saxon underpinnings. The unfortunate aspect about your embryonic comment is that probably think you’re ‘exceptional’ along with basking and boasting that you have White, Asian, and Latino friends.

    • Alex says:

      Ok, now I see where you’re coming from. I’ve been reading your comments on the other posts you left on this site and your MO (Modus Operandi) is the same, which is to critically analyze and question the validity of research handled by a predominately white staff. I completely understand. All respect goes out to you.
      My apologies.

      Lastly, I don’t consider myself an ‘exception,’ to anything and it is not in my DNA to boast about having a diverse set of friends. What I am just trying to figure-out is how to use my newly acquired education and make changes in the world. That’s all

      • caribbean queen says:

        consider law school. black males are needed in the profession, despite the nonsense you may hear in the corporate media about there being “too many” lawyers. then you can help poor people fight for economic justice as well as environmental justice.

        • Michael says:

          Re: Caribbean Queen;

          I couldn’t agree with your more. In fact, the Black community need more critical thinking and conscious Blacks in literally every field of study because the battlefield is ‘on all fronts’. For those who disagree with the previous sentence, I would suggest that you open your eyes and be intellectual honest to the realities that our community is confronted with daily (i.e., in academia, corporate, or the public sector).

      • Willie says:

        There is no need to apologize. I am an African American who grew up in a impoverished area that does not show on the radar of poverty. We lived below what is normally accepted as the bottom of the poverty ladder. I am in agreement with you about the study and the value it provides. I am also in agreement with you about Michael’s Modus Operandi. What we need is less $10 words and more constructive dialogue and action. Not chest beating demonizing and attacks.

        • Michael says:


          You are sadly mistaken about some of my previous points. If more funding is appropriated (‘another $10 word in your case) for economic and social development in areas that have been intentionally neglected by local, state, and the federal government, then, the changes many would like to see would occur (i.e., more sooner than later). Further, you need to realize that simply because one comes from a challenging environment(i.e., rural, urban, or suburban) does not imply that he/she can not excel academically. In fact, so long as the people within the home, their immediate community, and school have high academic expectations, the majority of native born Black students will rise to the occasion. However, the biggest challenge the native born Black community is to no longer accept the anti-intellectual narrative that’s literally in every direction they turn(i.e., visually, acoustically, etc.).

          Last point, you need to realize that simply because my analysis is different than “Alex”, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as “chest beating attacks”, and merely a difference of position. If you’re flustered with my few comments, I can only imagine how you must conduct yourself in a meeting in which your colleagues see things different than you.

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