Key brain connections are weaker in poor children report researchers, from Washington University St. Louis. When compared to children from wealthier backgrounds, children in poor families showed weaker connections in parts of the brain that deal with learning, memory, stress and emotion, according to the study published Jan 15.
“Our past research has shown that the brain’s anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty,” said first author Deanna M. Barch, PhD. “In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress.”
When reviewing brains scans of over 100 children, researchers saw a difference in the way the hippocampus and amygdala connect to other parts of the brain. These weaker connections were more pronounced in children with a higher degree of poverty . The children with weaker brain connections have a higher risk of depression later in childhood.
Children raised in poverty tend to have poorer cognitive and educational outcomes and are at higher risk for psychiatric illnesses, including depression and antisocial behaviors. Researchers hypothesize that factors such as stress, adverse environmental exposures — including lead, cigarette smoke and poor nutrition — along with limited educational opportunities, can contribute to problems later in life.
“Poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children,” said co-investigator Joan L. Luby, MD, “Previously, we’ve seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn’t see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids.”
Even with weaker brain connections, researchers emphasize that interventions can improve outcomes for poor children.
“Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development,” Barsch said. “Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain. And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories.”
The study, Effect of Hippocampal and Amygdala Connectivity on the Relationship Between Preschool Poverty and School-Age Depression, is published in the The American Journal of Psychiatry.