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  • Posted June 28, 2023

Growing Up Poor May Rewire a Child's Brain: Study

Growing up in poverty may harm the structural wiring of a child's brain, a new study claims.

Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found a link between both neighborhood and household poverty and the brain's white matter tracts. These let the brain communicate between its regions and are important for processing information.

“White matter integrity is very important in brain development,” said first study author Zhaolong (Adrian) Li, a neuro-imaging research technician in the university's department of psychiatry. “For example, weaknesses in white matter are linked to visuospatial and mental health challenges in children. If we can capture how socioeconomic status affects white matter early on in a child's life, the hope is we can, one day, translate these findings to preventive measures.”

Some of these white matter differences can be attributed to childhood obesity and lower thinking function, both of which are higher risks in children who grow up in poverty. The lower thinking function may be due partly to limited access to enriching sensory, social and cognitive (mental) stimulation.

“Our finding that obesity and cognitive enrichment may be relevant mediators, if confirmed, would provide strong support for managing healthy weight and encouraging cognitively stimulating activities to support brain health in disadvantaged children,” co-corresponding author Tamara Hershey said in a university news release. She is a professor of cognitive neuroscience, psychiatry and radiology.

For the study, the researchers used data from the U.S. National Institutes of Health's Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, of which Washington University is one of 21 study sites. The ABCD study is following nearly 12,000 children, beginning at ages 9 to 10, for at least a decade.

The scientists then modeled water movement as an indicator of white matter integrity in the brain scans of more than 8,800 children, aged 9 to 11. Diverse brain cell structures create barriers that get in the way of water movement.

This team found less directional movement of water molecules in the brains of children living in poverty, which suggested structural changes in white matter regions. Children in poverty may also have neuro-inflammation, the researchers suggested, because there was higher water content in spherical spaces in the brain.

In disadvantaged neighborhoods, families are more likely to experience income disparity, unemployment, less education and more single-parent homes.

When communication pathways are disrupted, that may lead to physical challenges and worse mental health outcomes.

“Wealth and income inequality are accelerating in the U.S.,” said co-corresponding author Scott Marek, an assistant professor of radiology and of psychiatry. “We and others are starting to scratch the surface of how inequality may harm the developing brain and affect mental health outcomes. Our findings emphasize shifting away from the thinking that socioeconomics is a unitary construct. It's not schools or parenting alone that matter for brain health. It's likely the collection of many neighborhood and familial life factors.”

The findings were published online June 27 in JAMA Network Open. The study was partially funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Study limitations are that it only looked at one point in time, so it is too soon to know if poverty triggered the brain differences.

“We hope this work encourages future studies to examine modifiable health risk factors in large and longitudinal samples that would one day translate to intervention,” Hershey said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on brain development.

SOURCE: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, news release, June 27, 2023

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