Study: Poverty does lasting damage to a child's brain

Scientists say poverty-induced changes to a child's brain can negatively impact emotional and psychological health, both now and later.

By Brooks Hays

ST. LOUIS, July 20 (UPI) -- The most long-lasting scars of childhood poverty may not be visible to the naked eye. New research suggests they are buried deep in the brain tissue of a child.

A shameful 22 percent of children in the United States are living in poverty. The stresses of growing up in family that can't afford regular meals, shelter, healthcare and education can have long-lasting effects on a child's brain development.


Scientists say these changes, or scars, can negatively impact emotional and psychological health, both now and later. In addition to struggling in the classroom and on standardized tests, children living in poverty are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression as they get older.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Washington University in St. Louis looked at socioeconomic, health and academic performance data for thousands of kids and analyzed the most recent scientific literature on the subject to compose one of the most comprehensive surveys on childhood poverty and the developing brain.

"Our research has shown that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children," child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, director of Washington University's Early Emotional Development Program, said in a press release.


Luby penned an editorial describing the importance of the new research in JAMA Pediatrics. Luby and her colleagues found strong correlations between poverty, low academic performance, and delays in the development of the brain's frontal and temporal lobes.

The silver lining is that the same plasticity that makes a child's brain vulnerable to the stresses of poverty, also makes the brain adaptable, salvageable. The researchers found that a nurturing parent can have measurable mitigating effects on a child's brain development.

"Early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all," Lubry wrote in the editorial.

"In developmental science and medicine, it is not often that the cause and solution of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated," she continued. "It is even less common that feasible and cost-effective solutions to such problems are discovered and within reach."

Latest Headlines