Kids who come from lower socioeconomic families have a harder time ignoring insignificant environmental information than children who come from higher income families, due to the fact that they learn how to pay attention to things differently, according to a new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Previous trials over the last few years started to show how low socioeconomic status can impact brain function and development. A 2008 study by Amedeo D’Angiulli, from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and his team utilized electroencephalography (EEG) to analyze brain patterns linked to a selective attention task in kids of low income and high income backgrounds.

The researchers discovered that the groups of children displayed differences in theta brain waves in the frontal lobe, a major area involved in attention. This revealed that the participants used different neural workings for the task they were given, and kids with a lower socioeconomic status allocated extra resources to focus on unimportant information.

D’Angiulli said:

“Socioeconomic environment shapes the way our neurocognitive functions develop in childhood and influence the way we learn to process information when we are adults so that we can be well adapted in a certain specific type of social environment.”

During their recent trial, D’Angiulli and his team enlisted 28 kids between the ages of 12 and 14 from two schools of contrasting socioeconomic status. One school was mostly attended by children who were from high income families, while the other was mostly attended by kids from low income backgrounds.

The study took place during normal school day hours from a mobile lab inside a van, which contained all of the necessary equipment to conduct the trial. Throughout the course of the day, the researchers took saliva samples from the children involved in the study in order to analyze alterations in their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The participants were also asked, at different times, to fill out 3 surveys regarding their motivational and emotional states.

During the afternoon, the children’s brain waves were recorded while the researchers played different sounds into both of their ears, and they were asked to press a button as quickly as possible when they heard a certain sound.

The report states that there were no major differences observed between the two groups in the precision or reaction time during the experiment. However, the experts did find differences in the participants’ brain wave patterns. Children of higher socioeconomic status showed much larger theta waves when hearing sounds they paid attention to than sounds they ignored. On the other hand, children of lower socioeconomic status showed the opposite pattern; theta waves were larger in sounds they were supposed to ignore than those they were supposed to pay attention to.

The researchers also noted major differences between the two groups’ left and right hemispheres. Children of lower socioeconomic status showed stronger theta waves in the right frontal lobe when reacting to attended sounds.

The children of lower socioeconomic status displayed higher levels of corisol than the kids of higher socioeconomic status throughout the school day. However, the differences in cortisol levels, either before or after the attention experiment, were insignificant, which suggests that both groups’ stress levels during the task were relatively the same.

The surveys showed that both groups of children reported the same levels of motivation and boredom during the school day and a comparable increase in boredom levels before the attention experiment began.

These results indicate that children from lower socioeconomic status have to exercise more cognitive control in order to ignore unimportant information than children of higher socioeconomic status. The researchers say this may be because these kids tend to live in environments which are more intimidating than the children of higher socioeconomic status, which could possibly make them pay attention to irrelevant information and sounds.

“We are now studying how other domains that may be related to attention, such as decision-making, may differ in individuals with different socioeconomic background,” concluded D’Angiulli.

Written by Christine Kearney