SEATTLE — Multiple studies have been published about the effect of poverty on the brain, especially in regard to children. Research shows strong correlations that children in poverty undergo physical changes in the brain and demonstrate developmental problems in cognitive skills.
Natalie H. Brito is a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University. She has spent her academic years studying the effect of different factors on the development of children’s minds. Her studies include socioeconomic status, the bilingual capabilities of toddlers, and memory development gained from two-dimensional media. The Borgen Project spoke with Brito about her research, how it was conducted, and potential solutions for children living in poverty.
The Borgen Project: Your research topic was socioeconomic status and neurocognitive development, could you explain what that entails?
Natalie H. Brito: So, I’m interested in the process through which experience impacts both brain development and cognitive skills. Particularly for me, I study the impact of experience within the first couple years of life. The first three years of life is where my expertise lies. I look at differences between children who are both in poverty and not in poverty, but I also take a look at kids across the socioeconomic spectrum (SES).
TBP: How is this type of research conducted?
Brito: We do both data collection and secondary data analysis. With data collection, we have infants and their parents come into the lab. We look at their memory skills, their language skills, and at how parents and children interact with each other. I also use an electroencephalogram which is an EEG. When many people think about neural markers or neuroimaging, they think of an MRI scanner. However, I use EEG because it’s more infant-friendly.
From the data collection side, we have the parents answer a lot of questions about their economic situation. What level of education they are, what their income level is, social support. We asked about government resources, their depression, anxiety. Basically, we did an entire battery trying to characterize the situations that they’re going through. Then we looked to see how the tests and paradigms we do in the lab correlate with the different circumstances that each family is going through.
TBP: Could you give us a brief synopsis of the results you found throughout your research?
Brito: There are a wealth of results showing that living in impoverished environments does have an impact on cognitive skills. For many different reasons, living in impoverished environments could cause more stress, exposure to more violence and neglect. On the other hand, you could be also exposed to less stimulation, less language in the home and fewer resources. A lot of these findings were really starting around kindergarten level. By the age of 5, children from higher-SES homes were outperforming their lower-SES peers on numerous academic and cognitive measures.
Between 15 and 21 months of age, we started to see stark differences. In language skills, by 21 months of age, children whose parents were the most educated were scoring about three-quarters of a standard deviation higher than children to whose parents were the least educated. We found very similar results for memory as well.
The other finding […] was that both family income and parental education impacted brain cortical surface area. It impacted brain structures. The reason why this study got a lot of press is because of the large sample size, and how we were able to control for numerous factors. We controlled for the genetic analysis factor which gave us a proportion of where the child’s race was thought to be from. So, because often times race and SES, at least in the United States, are so confounded, by controlling for that, we were able to really look at the association between income and brain structure instead of some of these other corollary factors.
TBP: Do you feel that there is a similar effect of poverty on the brain among children in developing countries?
Brito: In terms of global effects and children growing up in developing countries, I think it really does depend on the community structure, the family structure. You may not have a lot of resources, but your subjective social status […] basically how you perceive yourself within the community seems to make a big impact.
Here in the United States, it may not be just growing up in poor communities. Perhaps a poor community right next to a very wealthy community, where you can compare lifestyles and conditions, may decrease your subjective social status and lead to more impairments. I think that question is really hard to assess just because there are many different factors that go into a child’s well-being from an SES perspective.
TBP: Impoverished conditions typically come with other circumstances that can impair development – exposure to violence, malnutrition, etc. Do you feel that in developing countries, governments could establish programs that target these issues?
Brito: Yes, particularly in developing countries, even here in the United States, we know that access to prenatal care and nutrition during pregnancy, before the child is even born, have huge effects. Access to healthcare, food security, even just making sure that the basic needs are met. When I talk to a lot of our participants — always worrying about where their next paycheck comes from, always worrying about if they have enough resources, it takes away time and energy from having meaningful interaction with your child.
In developing countries, basic parental support policies and social safety nets are a crucial starting point for the healthy development and long-term wellbeing of children and communities. Research like Brito’s is illustrative of the effect of poverty on the brain, of the importance of the formative years of a child’s life, and shows that the global community must continue to put children first.
– Tammy Hineline