ST. LOUIS, Missouri- According to new research conducted by academics from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, children who are born into poverty may suffer negative brain changes that can lead to lifelong problems. The study published in JAMA Pediatrics cites issues such as learning difficulties, depression and an inability to cope with stress. These finding are linked to development in chaotic environments and a lack of nurturing skills demonstrated by overburdened and under-resourced parents and caregivers.
Being born into poverty is not good for a child’s health. Low-income mothers are more likely to have low birth weight babies who have a high risk of infant mortality within the first few months of life. Children born into impoverished households might not have enough food or not enough nutritious food in the home. These nutritional deficiencies can result in stunted growth. Obesity is also a high risk for poor children because of a lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetable and a reliance on cheap and processed food products to survive.
Those who start life in poverty without access to proper nutrition can experience chronic health problems as they grow up, such as anemia and asthma in addition to hunger and nutritional deficiencies.
Researchers wanted to delve further into the poverty effect on brain development and conducted a study on 145 children using MRI’s. The researchers were looking at the amount of gray and white brain matter. Gray matter in the brain is associated with intelligence, and white matter is usually linked to the brain’s ability to transmit signals between cells and structures.
The MRI scans were also used to look at the amygdala and the hippocampus. These two key brain structures are linked to emotional health, and memory and learning.
The children who were a part of this Preschool Depression Study were between the ages of 6 and 12 years old. Some were viewed as healthy, while others were examined as being depressed, or had been diagnosed with various psychiatric disorders, including ADHD.
The study also rated the level of parental/guardian nurturing. They did this by monitoring a child’s impatience and the parent’s patience with the child. The study confirmed that impoverished parents were more stressed and had greater difficulties in responding to the children in a patient and nurturing manner.
Children who were poor and had relationships with parents or guardians that lacked patience and nurturing behaviors had less gray and white brain matter and were underdeveloped in certain areas like the amygdala and in particular the hippocampus in comparison with other healthy and provided for children.
Poverty is a disenfranchising and damaging experience for anyone, but is especially harmful to those most vulnerable children.
An infant’s brain develops in relation to its environment. If a child grows up without basic security and experiences constant stress and chaos, they are constantly vulnerable and constantly on alert for danger. The brain is less able to concentrate and energy is instead spent on coping with stress, fear, and hunger for basic needs.
These factors can lead to ill health, behavioral problems, and the development of disorders like ADHD. Furthermore, children in poverty are much more likely to experience stressful life events, such as moving and relocating schools. All of which can have an impact on brain development.
The parenting styles of parents and guardians are also affected by poverty. Many experience unemployment, homelessness and the struggle to provide for basic needs like food and healthcare. Lower-income families also tend to have more authoritarian of neglectful households and have less positive reinforcements.
All of this comes from the stress of being poor. Not only does poverty prevent basic needs from being met, but long term it effects normal brain development often trapping people in poverty without any chance of surviving, let alone escaping.
– Nina Verfaillie