Growing up poor affects your BRAIN: Children in low-income households show slower activity in key neural regions linked to thinking and learning, study reveals
- Researchers scanned the brains of 435 one-year-old children
- This was after their mothers had been given regular financial support payments
- The families either received $333 (£250) or $20 (£15) a month to use as desired
- Infants in the former group had 20 per cent higher frequency brain activity
- The findings show how combatting poverty can aid children’s development
Children who grow up in poorer households show slower activity in key brain regions linked to both thinking and learning, a study has warned.
Experts from Columbia University found that the brain development of infants in low-income families varied with the amount of financial support they were given.
Scans at age one showed faster brain activity in kids whose families were given $333 (£250) of support monthly compared to those given only $20 (£15) per month.
It is unclear if the differences in brain activity will persist as the children age, or how they might influence cognitive and behavioural growth.
However, in older children, activity in the regions in question has previously been linked to the development of learning skills.
The researchers are now investigating how the payments benefited the children, with possibilities including facilitating better nutrition, or relieving parental stress.
Either way, they said, the results suggest that interventions designed to reduce poverty could benefit infant brain development and improve later outcomes.
Children who grow up in poorer households exhibit slower brain activity in key neural regions linked to both thinking and learning, a study has warned (stock image)
IMPLICATIONS FOR US CHILD TAX CREDITS
According to the researchers, the larger of the two monthly sums given to the mothers in the study was similar in size to those distributed to low-income families in the US during the pandemic by President Joe Biden’s child tax credit program, which ended last month.
Child psychiatrist Joan Luby of the Washington University medical school was not involved in the study, but did review the paper, and told the Associated Press that the findings ‘couldn’t be more relevant to the current moment.’
At present, the renewal of the US child tax credit scheme is still up the air.
‘This study should really inform Congress about how tremendously important it is’, Dr Luby added.
The investigation was undertaken by neuroscientist Kimberly Noble of New York’s Columbia University and her colleagues.
‘The brain changes speak to the remarkable malleability of the brain, especially early in childhood,’ said Professor Noble.
‘We have known for many years that growing up in poverty puts children at risk for lower school achievement, reduced earnings, and poorer health.
‘However, until now, we haven’t been able to say whether poverty itself causes differences in child development, or whether growing up in poverty is simply associated with other factors that cause those differences.’
In the study, the researchers measured brain activity levels among a subset of 435 one-year-old children who were participating in the so-called ‘Baby’s First Years’ trial.
This randomised controlled trial into the benefits of poverty reduction has seen 1,000 low-income mothers recruited from postpartum wards in four US metropolitan areas — New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, and Minneapolis–Saint Paul.
The mothers, who were primarily Black or Latina and not college educated, were then given a cash gift of either $333 (£250) or $20 (£15) per month to spend it whatever way they chose.
While these results come from one year into the interventions, the trial is still ongoing, and the mothers will continue to receive the monthly cash gifts until their children are four years and four months old.
Each child’s brain activity was measured using an electroencephalography, or ‘EEG’, machine via an electrode-bearing cap that was placed on the child’s head.
The researchers found that children whose mothers were given $333 per month had around 20 per cent more high-frequency brain activity than those whose parents were only given $20 of support monthly.
High-frequency brain activity in the frontal region has previously been linked to both the development of learning and thinking skills.
Each infants’ brain activity was measured using an electroencephalography, or ‘EEG’, machine via a cap that was placed on the child’s head. The researchers found that children whose mothers were given $333 per month had around 20 per cent more high-frequency brain activity than those whose parents were only given $20 of support monthly
Professor Noble explained that children’s brains naturally adapt to their experiences.
‘All healthy brains are shaped by their environments and experiences, and we are not saying that one group has “better” brains,’ she said.
‘But — because of the randomized design — we know that the $333 per month must have changed children’s experiences or environments, and that their brains adapted to those changed circumstances.’
The ‘Baby’s First Years’ trial into the benefits of poverty reduction has seen 1,000 low-income mothers recruited from postpartum wards in four US metropolitan areas — New Orleans, New York City, Omaha, and Minneapolis–Saint Paul, as depicted
‘Families are all different, and the potential promise of money as a way of directly supporting families is that it allows parents to make choices about what their children most need,’ said paper author Katherine Magnuson.
‘Thus, there may not be just one way in which money positively affects families; —money may matter in a lot of small ways.
‘We hear from the mothers in our study how challenging it is to raise children without enough money.
‘A few hundred dollars a month has the potential to do a lot of good for these families, and we are grateful that we will continue to learn from them about how the money has helped them meet their goals.’
‘Global evidence is thin on how children are affected by cash transfers, especially with respect to very young children,’ said fellow paper author and applied economist Lisa Gennetian of North Carolina’s Duke University.
‘This is mostly because it is so hard and expensive to objectively capture children’s development. This study’s findings on infant brain activity are unprecedented.’
The outcomes seen, she added, ‘really speak to how anti-poverty policies — including the types of expanded child tax credits being debated in the US — can and should be viewed as investments in children.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
ELECTROENCEPHALOGRAPHY (EEG) EXPLAINED
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a recording of brain activity which was originally developed for clinical use.
During the test, small sensors are attached to the scalp to pick up the electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other.
In the medical field, EEGs are typically carried out by a highly trained specialist known as a clinical neurophysiologist.
These signals are recorded by a machine and are analysed by a medical professional to determine whether they’re unusual.
An EEG can be used to help diagnose and monitor a number of conditions that affect the brain.
It may help identify the cause of certain symptoms, such as seizures or memory problems.
More recently, technology companies have used the technique to create brain-computer interfaces, sometimes referred to as ‘mind-reading’ devices.
This has led to the creation and design of a number of futuristic sounding gadgets.
These have ranged from a machine that can decipher words from brainwaves without them being spoken to a headband design that would let computer users open apps using the power of thought.
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