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.

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