Family Income and Child Brain Growth
The hippocampus area of the brain controls memory and learning. Its healthy development is important for later success in life, but can be negatively affected by stress. Because stress is often greater in homes with financial difficulties, some researchers believe this could explain lower academic performance among children from families at lower socioeconomic levels.
A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University published in the online journal Plos ONE, “Association between Income and the Hippocampus,” compared data among more than 400 children ranging from 4 to 18 years old. The children’s families were divided by socioeconomic level, with the lowest income group composed of families 150% below the Federal Poverty Line ($22,050 for a family of four.) The study screened out children who had mental health issues or indications of very low intelligence.
The study’s findings include:
- Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had less gray matter compared to children from more affluent backgrounds.
- One level of higher income status is associated with 14.5% greater growth of active grey area in the hippocampus, even after holding constant many other contributing factors.
- The results held for both Caucasian and non-Caucasian children, though the researchers suggest that more such research needs to focus on questions of ethnicity.
The study indicates that “differences in the hippocampus, perhaps due to stress tied to growing up in poverty, might partially explain differences in long-term memory, learning, control of neuroendocrine functions, and modulation of emotional behavior.” Furthermore, understanding the potential relationship between poverty and brain growth “may aid in the design and implementation of intervention programs” that address health and education needs for underprivileged children.
Tags: children, poverty, cognition
Read the issue-related Seattle Times article "High Poverty But High Hopes: West Seattle Elementary School Making Progress."
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
Read the full University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University study "Association between Income and the Hippocampus."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.