Childhood poverty, stress can hurt brain development

Oct. 28, 2013 at 11:29 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter
| License Photo

ST. LOUIS, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Childhood poverty and stressful life events, which often go hand in hand, as well as non-nurturing parents hurt brain development, U.S. researchers.

Dr. Joan L. Luby, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children's Hospital who was the principal investigator for the study, and colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to chart changes in the brain that can lead to lifelong problems such as depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress.

The study, published online ahead of the November print issue of JAMA Pediatrics, found poor children with parents who were not very nurturing were likely to have less gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is closely linked to intelligence, while white matter often is linked to the brain's ability to transmit signals between various cells and structures, the study said.

The MRI scans also revealed that two key brain structures were smaller in children living in poverty: the amygdala, a key structure in emotional health; and the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical to learning and memory, Luby said.

"We've known for many years from behavioral studies that exposure to poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children," Luby said in a statement. "A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development. What's new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience."

The researchers tracked 305 healthy and depressed kids since they were in preschool, who also received MRI scans that tracked brain development.

Although the investigators found poverty had a powerful impact on gray matter, white matter, hippocampal and amygdala volumes, the study found the main driver of changes among poor children in the volume of the hippocampus was not lack of money but the extent to which poor parents nurtured their children.

Trending Stories