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Smaller brain size in children attributed to poverty

Posted:  Friday, April 10, 2015

Poverty disparities translate to disparities in a child’s cognitive development. However, the extent to which these disparities can influence a child’s brain structure is unclear. A new study led by Kimberly Noble of Columbia University’s Teachers College and Medical School, has revealed that poorer children have smaller brains than their affluent counterparts.

The study published in Nature Neuroscience journal looked at over a thousand children’s brain scan images for over a period of three years. The researchers reported that poorer children have smaller brains than their prosperous counterparts, indicating that poverty has an impact on a child’s brain structure.

The study assessed decision making and language skills by recording the surface area of the subjects’ cerebral cortices. Results from cognitive tests revealed a 6% smaller brain size in poor children compared with their affluent counterparts. Poor children also scored lower in the cognitive tests.

The researchers came up with two theories to address the question as to why children from poor households have smaller brains. Of the theories proposed, one of them stated that poor households lack access to nutrition and quality healthcare which are essential for healthy brain development. The researchers were also of the opinion that the stressful and chaotic lives of poor families could restrict brain development among children.

“Although there are associations of parental education and family income with a child’s brain structure it cannot be ascertained that differences in a child’s brain structure are triggered by poverty”, said Noble. She also added that, “this relationship is more of a correlation than a causation.”

Knowing the relationship between poverty and a child’s brain structure warrants actions to implement intervention strategies for the same. This study is suggestive that better access to quality healthcare and nutrition can result in better brain structure in children. Policies intended at improving quality of households can have a long-lasting effect on brain development and cognition in children.

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