Childhood poverty may harm brain development

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1. The income-to-needs ratio (a measure of poverty) was significantly associated with smaller hippocampal and amygdala volumes in children. 

2. Caregiving support/hostility and stressful life events were significant mediators for hippocampal volumes in children. 

Evidence Rating Level: 2 (Good)          

Study Rundown: Poverty is a known, potent risk factor for poor neurodevelopment among children. Previous research has focused on using animal models to explain the underlying mechanisms of this relationship. This study examined the effect of poverty (measured using the income-to-needs ratio) on brain development among children aged 6-12 years old.  The authors found that children exposed to poverty were significantly more likely to have smaller white matter, cortical gray matter, hippocampal and amygdala volumes. This effect was mediated by caregiving support/hostility and stressful life events, but not caregiver education. The data used for this study oversampled preschool children with depression, which may limit its applicability to the general population. Overall, these findings provide evidence for specific mechanisms of poverty on childhood brain development and suggest that interventions, such as early caregiving, may mitigate the effects of poverty.

Click to read the study in JAMA Pediatrics

Relevant Reading: The Influence of Socioeconomic Status on Children’s Brain Structure

In-Depth [prospective cohort study]: This longitudinal study included 145 right-handed children age 6-12 years old from the 10-year Pre-school Depression Study.  The authors conducted hierarchical multiple linear regression analyses to determine if the income-to-needs ratio (total family income divided by the federal poverty level based on family size) predicted brain volumes (specifically, amygdala and hippocampus, measured by MRI). The income-to-needs ratio was a positive predictor of children’s left hippocampus and left amygdala volume (p=.02 and p=.01, respectively). Parent education, supportive/hostile parenting, and children’s stressful life events were all assessed as potential mediators for this relationship. Income-to-needs ratio was significantly associated with each mediator (p<.001 in all models). Stressful life events and caregiving behaviors positively predicted children’s left hippocampus volumes and caregiving behaviors was the only mediator to predict right hippocampus volume. None of the mediators were significant in predicting left and right amygdala volumes (p>.14).

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