Combating Poverty Worldwide: How Neuroscientists Can Help

Since the days of the Great Recession to Occupy Wall Street, from the crash of markets in Europe to the latest cycle of presidential campaigning in the United States, poverty has been a hotly discussed issue throughout the world, with rhetoric getting much stronger over the past decade. Particularly in the United States, it’s no secret that there’s a growing gap between the wealthiest citizens and the poorest, as the middle class is gradually disappearing. While the debate has been left up to economists and political analysts, some of the effects of poverty may require more than just a change in fiscal policy.

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that living in poverty might actually be quite expensive — at least in terms of health and development. In addition to the harrowing stress that comes along with being poor, the effects may be more deep-rooted — halting brain development in children. We’ve understood that those who are socio-economically underprivileged tend to do poorer in school, but the reasons have long been attributed to those well-off having access to school facilities with larger budgets, smaller classroom sizes, or parents who could afford private schools or tutoring services, but the newest findings in neuroscience suggest that up to 20 percent of the gap between students from low- and high-income families could be attributed to brain development.

“Poverty has a pervasive influence on a child’s health,” says Dr. James M. Perrin, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who addressed the issue last year at the Aspen Brain Forum. “Every chronic disease in children is both more common and worse if you are poor, and treatment is less effective if you are poor. It is absolutely critical that we come together and develop ways to break the cycle before another generation of children grows into adulthood suffering the long-term impact of childhood poverty.”

Perrin and his colleagues feel that the time has come for doctors to stop being apathetic toward economic issues — that the evidence shows a real reason to attack poverty as though it were any other debilitating childhood disease. The experiment demonstrating this was led by psychologist Seth Pollak, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and included 389 healthy children and adolescents as test subjects, with participants ranging between 4 and 22 years of age. They were given age-appropriate cognitive skills tests and their results were matched with MRIs that checked for gray matter in their temporal and frontal lobes.

Subjects from families in households living below the U.S. federal poverty line had levels of gray matter 8 to 10 percent lower than those with normal brain development. There wasn’t enough correlation between gray matter when it came to comparing children of middle-class families and those of affluent ones, suggesting that although money hardly guarantees a better outcome, a lack of financial resources clearly has a negative effect. “The reason I think we’re not seeing a continuum is that humans are very hardy,” said Pollak about his study, “I think the human child can learn to accommodate quite a wide variety of circumstances — what’s happening in extreme poverty is that we’re moving out of the range where the human brain can cope.”

Pollak hoped that the effects were only temporary — but 22-year-olds still had the same developmental issues as they had while growing up. Researchers looked at other possibilities such as being raised up within abusive homes, which tend to be associated with poverty, but even in children who were otherwise healthy, this deficiency was still observed. Joan Luby, a psychiatrist from the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Mo., supports the findings of Pollak’s team, believing it emphasizes an important roadmap to combating poverty worldwide.

In a developed country like the United States, 51 percent of students attending public schools come from low-income families, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — a large number who may be suffering from hindered brain development. For Pollak, the next question his team intends to investigate is what social policies are most beneficial to children living below the poverty line. He’s also not the first person to have seen these unsettling results either.

The journal Nature Neuroscience published a pertinent study this spring, conducted on a larger scale by neuroscientists Kimberly Noble, of New York City’s Columbia University, and, from the opposite coast, Elizabeth Sowell of the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, both of whom looked into the biological underpinnings related to poverty. Their effort spanned several American cities — scanning the brains of 1,099 individuals as their controls — and included children, adolescents, as well as young adults. Genetic ancestry was also factored in, to account for variance in brain structures among ethnic groups.

The lowest income bracket in the study — families earning below $25,000 — showed 6 percent less surface area than the families that earned over $150,000. The research was consistent with other studies, particularly one by Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Her research concerned 44 African-American female infants, roughly a month old, and coming from a mixture of socio-economic backgrounds throughout Philadelphia. Even this early in development, those from low-income milieus evidence having smaller brains than the infants from wealthier contexts.

Farah and her team presented the research in March during a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Their work, however, is far from over, still planning to follow the infants chosen for the study for an additional two years — as only Pollak’s study has offered some insight into how children with an economic disadvantage develop over time, and not much of the existing literature explicitly isolates the causes.

We do see a correlation in the numbers, but what, if it can be ruled as a single cause, is responsible for this gap in the first place? Among the causes that Farah suspects is the degree of interaction between parents and their children, as this form of socialization increases the likelihood of infants being more regularly exposed to language, allowing their brains to build as they recognize and connect with new sounds. The access to toys can also be a crucial factor — particularly how stimulating the toys that they’re given are for their developing brains. Farah will also factor in regular visits to their home environment.

Jamie Hanson, a psychologist at Duke University, has reckoned many of the researchers’ sentiments as evidence that poverty indeed has an adverse effect, which may make it all the more difficult to eliminate through social policy alone: “These early life circumstances make it tougher for many children and it’s on many of us in society to make sure that children have equal possibilities.”

While the social implications of the work can be significant, and the precise causes remain to be still seen, it would be far from the truth to say that all is lost for those born into a lower-income bracket. While the damage shows signs of persisting, this does not mean that it isn’t reversible. To this end, a study in Mexico revealed that supplements provided to the incomes of poor farmers led to an improvement in the cognitive skills of their children, in just a mere 18 months — all of which suggests that the focus might be better placed on families in general rather than just examining their children.

According to Hanson, we could be seeing another instance of environmental factors impacting DNA — a problem that could arise even before the children are born — and intervention into areas of nutrition and stress management could go a long way in terms of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty.

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