Poverty Hurts Kids’ Brain Development and Grades, Study of MRI Scans Shows

July 21, 2015|2:49 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

A new JAMA Pediatrics study has found that children who live below the poverty line have 7 percent to 10 percent less gray matter volume than normal in their frontal and temporal lobes—parts of the brain that are responsible for learning functions.

The researchers analyzed hundreds of MRI scans for the study, which adds to a growing body of research indicating that toxic stress and other factors from being poor can disrupt normal brain development in otherwise healthy children and have detrimental physical manifestations. It also may help explain the well-established link between poverty and lower academic performance, in addition to education resource access issues. Brain differences may account for as much as 20 percent of the academic achievement gap between poor children and wealthier ones, the researchers found.

According to Seth Pollak, the study’s co-author and psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, differences between the brains of poor children and their peers were seen as early as age 4, making early intervention essential to preventing damage before children start school.

Twenty-two percent of U.S. children grow up living below the poverty line. “Economic hardship is the most common adverse childhood experience reported nationally and in almost all states,” according to “Adverse Childhood Experiences: National and State-Level Prevalence,” an issue brief from Child Trends, a nonprofit research center focused on child and youth well-being.

Joan Luby, who wrote the JAMA Pediatrics study’s editorial and is the Early Emotional Development Program director at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Reuters Health that “with scientists having collected the data on the problem, it’s now up to the policymakers to make the changes” to address poverty’s harmful effects on children’s brain development.

“You just need the support and funding for it,” she said.

To learn more about adverse childhood experiences, see this Washington Post op-ed, “What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger” by Virgie Townsend, senior editor of communications and social media at ASTHO.