MIT study links family income, test scores, brain anatomy

"There’s a lot of interest among educators and policymakers in trying to understand the sources of those achievement gaps," said study author Martin West, "but even more interest in possible strategies to address them."
By Brooks Hays  |  April 17, 2015 at 1:36 PM
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BOSTON, April 17 (UPI) -- It goes without saying that poor children aren't born less intelligent. But a long list of studies show children in low-income households consistently rank below their more well-off peers when it comes to standardized testing and other measures of academic achievement.

A new study goes a step further, linking poverty to changes in the adolescent brain. When researchers at MIT scanned the brains of some 54 students, they found high-income students (in comparison with lower-income peers) have thicker cortex tissue in areas of the brain linked with visual perception and knowledge acquisition. These differences in brain structure were also linked with a dichotomy in standardized test scores.

"Just as you would expect, there's a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children," study author John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, said in a press release. "To me, it's a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn't come easily in their environment."

Previous studies have linked brain anatomy differences to income levels. And a variety of studies have explored the link between wealth, poverty and academic success. But the latest from MIT is the first to locate the correlation between all three.

Researchers instigated the study as a way to better understand the wide gap between students from poor families and those from more affluent circumstances. Even as racial gaps have narrowed, the achievement gap between rich and poor children has remained largely the same.

"The gap in student achievement, as measured by test scores between low-income and high-income students, is a pervasive and longstanding phenomenon in American education, and indeed in education systems around the world," said study author Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "There's a lot of interest among educators and policymakers in trying to understand the sources of those achievement gaps, but even more interest in possible strategies to address them."

While the latest study didn't attempt to identify reasons for the differences in brain structure and test scores, previous studies suggest poorer students are less likely to have been exposed to language at an early age. Poorer children are also more likely to be exposed to psychological stressors, and are less likely to have access to educational resources like books. All these factors have been linked with lower scholastic performance.

The silver lining, researchers say, is that a wealth of scientific evidence suggests the brain is tremendously resilient.

"There's so much strong evidence that brains are highly plastic," explained Gabrieli. "Our findings don't mean that further educational support, home support, all those things, couldn't make big differences."

While Gabrieli and his research partners did locate specific brain differences, more general cerebral measurements -- the amount of white matter, overall surface area, and number of axon bundles which aid in connectivity between different parts of the brain -- weren't correlated with socioeconomic status.

Researchers plan on using followup studies to further explore what strategies work best for mitigating cognitive differences.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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