Poverty’s Penalty on the Brain

Growing up isn’t easy. Growing up in poverty is harder. Unstable living conditions, a chronic lack of resources, poor nutrition, inadequate emotional support, and stressed parents are a toxic combination of hurdles on the road to adulthood. Typically, psychologists, educators, and social workers see the signs of childhood poverty manifested in schools and workplaces as poor self control, weak attention and language skills, lower IQ scores, and reduced memory capabilities. These professionals conduct their assessments and interventions based largely on behavioral symptoms.

Two new research studies provide specific evidence that the experience of poverty can actually change the way the brain works and leave people with chronic impairment to emotional and cognitive functioning. The work illustrates some unseen costs of poverty and, hopefully, provides a fresh incentive to deal with them


The rewired brain
A multi-university US research team examined brain activity as a function of childhood poverty and found changes involving emotional regulation that lasted into adulthood. Growing up poor, it seems, can change the brain in a way that leads to difficulties later in life.

The researchers studied the brain activity of adult volunteers as they performed a stressful task. About half the participants had spent their childhood in low income families.

Participants were first taught a technique for controlling their emotions that involved mentally distancing themselves from scenes or reinterpreting scenes as less harmful. They were then asked to try to suppress their emotions while viewing a set of negative pictures. During the task, active brain regions were examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research team focused on the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is known to have a role in fear reactions and negative emotions while the prefrontal cortex is known to help regulate those emotions.

The results showed greater activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex for the participants who had grown up in low income circumstances. In other words, those who had experienced poverty were more likely to generate emotional responses and were less able to modulate them.

These findings held up even after the researchers controlled for income as adults; a history of childhood poverty was still the dominant factor in the results.

Although poverty is known to induce risk factors in development, this is the first time a link has been demonstrated between childhood poverty and adult brain function using neuroscience methods.

“Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult,” said  K. Luan Phan, senior author of the study. “The ability to regulate negative emotions can provide protection against the physical and psychological health consequences of acute and chronic stress.”


A chronic burden
Another research study by an international university team employed cognitive methods to test whether poverty might impose a bandwidth penalty on the brain, i.e., act as a chronic “load” that detracts from the mental resources normally available to handle daily problems.

The experimenters first primed study participants to think about a financial problem – how they would pay for an expensive car repair – and then asked them to complete a series of cognitive tests. When test performance was analyzed according to the annual income, the researchers found that lower income participants did worse than more well-off participants. According to the researchers’ hypothesis, thoughts about finances selectively burdened the low-income members of the study, reducing the cognitive bandwidth available for task performance.

The research team also tested their bandwidth model in a longitudinal study, i.e., by testing the same people at different times. They administered cognitive tests to farmers in India shortly before harvest (when they had very little money) and  again after harvest (when they had been paid for their crops). The results were similar: performance was worse in the “before harvest” condition, when the farmers had little money on which to live.

“These pressures create a salient concern in the mind and draw mental resources to the problem itself,” said Jiaying Zhao, the corresponding author of the study. “That means we are unable to focus on other things in life that need our attention.”

Poverty and policy
Although these studies employed different methods, they both demonstrated a connection between poverty and cognitive performance. Poverty shapes our brains in subtle and pervasive ways, so past history and current life circumstances can’t be ignored when accounting for human capabilities.

Poverty is big. Many resources, from many perspectives, are needed to alleviate the toll it takes on societies and individuals. By providing relevant evidence-based insights, however, science informs
the discussion and is therefore part of the solution.



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