OXFORD, Ohio — New research reveals that early life stress (ELS) can have a permanent impact on the brain, and that poverty can be a leading cause of child development issues.
A study published recently in Biological Psychiatry examines samples of children around 12-years-old who suffered from physical abuse, early neglect or low socioeconomic status in their first few years of life in order to explore the correlation between ELS and the development of certain regions of the brain and behavioral disorders.
What researchers are finding is that the amygdala and hippocampus, two regions of the brain that are heavily involved in socio-emotional functioning, are smaller in children who suffer toxic stress in their early years. The biggest stressors appear to be physical abuse and low socioeconomic status.
Through interviews with the children and their caregivers and brain scans, the research team conducting the study was able to conclude that smaller amygdala and hippocampal volumes are associated with behavioral problems and an inability to process emotions. Specifically, relatively small hippocampi are found in children who suffered physical abuse and poverty in their first three to four years.
Seth Pollak , a co-leader of the Biological Psychiatry study, observes that “given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society…unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won’t be able to tailor something to do about it.”
Another study, published this summer in Frontiers in Psychology, links academic achievement, working memory and poverty, and sheds light on the cycle of poverty that keeps so many children from meeting their potential.
PsyBlog defines working memory as “the ability to hold pieces of information in the mind and manipulate them, as well as the ability to stay on-task and ignore distractions.”
The Frontiers in Psychology study examines 106 Brazilian children between the ages of six and eight, half of whom live below the poverty line. Various test results show that success in reading and across all areas of study is demonstrated by children with the best working memories. The authors suggest that children living in poverty have a more difficult time developing their working memories – and, therefore, literacy and academic achievement – than do their more wealthy peers.
The study’s leader Dr. Pascale Engel de Abreu states, “Our findings suggest the importance of early screening and intervention, especially in the context of poverty. At present, poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers. Poor literacy, low academic achievement and living in poverty create a mutually reinforcing cycle. There is a chance to break this by early identification of children with working memory problems and by helping them to acquire the mental tools which will enable them to learn.”
These studies reinforce what most people take for granted – the deck is stacked against children living in poverty. But these studies also offer more insight into the various physiological and psychological processes that occur when a child grows up in poverty.
Of course, these physical and mental challenges have been overcome by many incredibly accomplished individuals who can proudly share their own journeys from rags to riches. Howard Schultz grew up in the Brooklyn projects, earned a football scholarship to the University of Northern Michigan and now leads the Starbucks empire. Leonardo Del Vecchio was raised in an orphanage, lost his finger in the factory where he worked as a teenager and went on to build Luxottica, the largest eyewear maker in the world. Ursula Burns spent her childhood living with her mother in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, got into NYU and became the first African-American woman at the head of a Fortune 500 company as she took on the role of CEO at Xerox.
Although early life stress and risk factors for academic under achievement create obstacles for children growing up under the poverty line, they are by no means insurmountable. New research is revealing the psychological reasons behind cycles of poverty and is pointing out new ways to help these underprivileged children. No child should be seen as a lost cause.
– Kayla Strickland