New research suggests that children who experience poverty early on in their lives may suffer negative brain changes that can lead to lifelong problems, such as learning difficulties, depression and the inability to cope with stress. This is according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, say their findings are linked to lack of nurturing skills demonstrated by a child’s parent or caregiver.

To reach their findings, the research team looked at the effect of poverty on the brain development of 145 children using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

The children were aged between 6 and 12 years and were part of a Preschool Depression Study.

Some of the children were healthy, while others were classed as depressed, or had been diagnosed with various psychiatric disorders, including ADHD.

The researchers used an income-to-needs ratio to measure poverty. This takes into account the size of family and annual income. At present, the federal 2013 poverty guidelines for the US state that the poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,550.

To measure the level of parental nurturing a child has received, observations were made by the researchers when the children attended a clinical appointment.

While waiting to see a medical professional at the appointment, the child was given a gift-wrapped package, during which the child’s parent or caregiver was asked to fill out paperwork. The child was told not to open the gift until the caregiver had finished the paperwork.

Throughout this task, the researchers rated the level of nurturing by monitoring a child’s impatience and the parent’s patience with the child. This exercise showed that parents living in poverty seemed more stressed and were less able to nurture the children.

“Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons. They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food,” says Joan L. Luby, a child psychiatrist at Washington University and principal investigator of the study.

“Perhaps they live in an unsafe environment. They may be facing many stresses, and some don’t have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don’t have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances.”

the hippocampus highlighted in pinkShare on Pinterest
An MRI highlights the hippocampus in a child’s brain (pink). Researchers say poor children with lack of caregiver nurturing have a smaller hippocampus – an area linked to memory and learning.
Photo credit: Washington University Early Emotional Development Program.

The results of the study revealed that children who were living in poverty and whose parents lacked nurturing skills were likely to have less gray and white matter in their brains.

The researchers say that white matter is usually linked to the brain’s ability to transmit signals between cells and structures, while gray matter is associated with intelligence.

The MRI scans also revealed that poor children had two key brain structures that were smaller, compared with wealthier children. These were the amygdala – a structure linked to emotional health – and the hippocampus – an area of the brain linked to memory and learning.

Furthermore, it was found that children in poverty were more likely to experience stressful life events, such as moving house or schools, which can have an impact on brain development.

Commenting on the findings, Luby says:

A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development.

What’s new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience.”

Luby says that since these findings provide evidence that lack of child nurturing from a parent or caregiver may significantly impact a child’s brain development, it is “vital” that public health intervention programs are created that target caregivers who lack nurturing skills.

“Children who experience positive caregiver support don’t necessarily experience the developmental, cognitive and emotional problems that can affect children who don’t receive as much nurturing, and that is tremendously important,” she adds.

“This study gives us a feasible, tangible target with the suggestion that early interventions that focus on parenting may provide a tremendous payoff.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that poverty reduces mental energy.