Children born into poverty show key differences in early brain function, including weaker activity in a region associated with working memory, according to a a new study of rural Indian children published in the journal Developmental Science.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the U.K. looked at the brain function of children ages four months to four years in rural India. The researchers found that children from lower-income backgrounds, whose mothers also had a low level of education, showed weaker brain activity and were more likely to be distracted.
“Each year, 250 million children in low and middle income countries fail to reach their developmental potential,” said lead researcher Professor John Spencer, from UEA’s School of Psychology. “There is therefore a growing need to understand the global impact of poverty on early brain and behavioural development.
“Previous work has shown that poverty and early adversities significantly impact brain development, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty. But few studies have looked at brain function early in development.”
“We wanted to find out more about the functional brain development of children born into poorer backgrounds, to see why many do not reach their full potential. This work is the first step in intervention efforts designed to boost early brain health before adversity can take hold.”
The team, which also involved researchers from the University of Stirling in Scotland, carried out the study in Uttar Pradesh, the most highly populated region in India. Using a portable “functional near infrared spectroscopy” (fNIRS) device, they evaluated the brain activity of 42 rural children between the ages of four months and four years. The fNIRS approach shines near-infrared light into cortical tissue via a special cap that is linked to a computer.
The researchers analyzed the children’s “visual working memory”; or how well they are able to store visual information and detect changes in the visual environment when they occur.
“We use our visual working memory around 10,000 times a day. Children begin to develop this skill in early infancy and it gradually improves through childhood and adolescence. We know that it is an excellent marker of early cognitive development,” said Spencer.
The research was conducted in partnership with the Community Empowerment Lab based in Lucknow, India. Participants were recruited from villages around Shivgarh in Uttar Pradesh.
The children were given a visual test involving blinking displays of colored squares. The goal of the test was to see if children could remember the colors well enough to detect that there was always a color change on one side of the display, while the colors on the other side always stayed the same.
Additional factors such as parental education, income, caste, religion, the number of children in the family, and economic status were taken into account. The findings were compared with children from families in the American Midwest.
The results show that the children in India from families with low maternal education and income showed weaker brain activity and poorer distractor suppression in the left frontal cortex area of the brain that is involved in working memory.
The research also demonstrates that portable neuroimaging technologies can be brought to rural parts of the developing world, bringing innovative technologies to areas most in need of assessment tools.
“Although the impact of adversity on brain development can trap children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the massive potential for brain plasticity is also a source of hope,” said Spencer. “By partnering with families in the local community and bringing innovative technologies to the field, we are hoping that together we can break this cycle of poverty in future work.”
Source: University of East Anglia