Expert Commentary

Family income and child brain growth

2011 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University published in the online journal Plos ONE on impacts of poverty on 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

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