A new study provides compelling evidence that growing up in poverty can lead to long-term negative consequences on a child’s brain development, emotional health, and academic achievement.
An emotionally nurturing environment, however, is able to mitigate many of poverty’s negative effects on the developing brain.
The study, conducted by child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, M.D., at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and her research team, found that low-income children suffer from irregular brain development and lower standardized test scores, with as much as an estimated 20 percent gap in achievement. These developmental delays are attributed mainly to changes in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
Based on their previous studies of young children living in poverty, the researchers also have identified changes in the brain’s framework that are linked to lifelong problems with depression, learning difficulties, and a struggle to deal with stress in a healthy way.
Importantly, however, Luby’s research indicates that parents who are nurturing can offset some of the negative effects of poverty on brain anatomy. Luby suggests that teaching nurturing skills to parents, particularly those who live below the poverty line, may provide a lifetime of benefit for children.
In fact, “early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all,” writes Luby in an accompanying editorial in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
“Our research has shown that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children,” said Luby, who is also the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of Washington University’s Early Emotional Development Program.
“In developmental science and medicine, it is not often that the cause and solution of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated,” she writes. “It is even less common that feasible and cost-effective solutions to such problems are discovered and within reach.”
An alarming 22 percent of U.S. children live in poverty. Based on this new research and what already is known about the damaging effects of poverty on brain development in children, as well as the benefits of nurturing during early childhood, “we have a rare road map to preserving and supporting our society’s most important legacy, the developing brain,” Luby writes.