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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
New Study Suggests Poverty Takes Toll on Children's Brains
The researchers behind the study, slated for publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, say they are hopeful that the lower brain function they have identified in many low-income children can be prevented or reversed. Accordingly, they are collaborating with other neuroscientists who use games and other stimuli to improve the functioning of the brain region in question--the prefrontal cortex--in school-age children.
Nonetheless, the researchers--all from the University of California at Berkeley--say their study's findings provide reason to worry that the environmental conditions experienced by low-income children pose a serious risk to their educational development.
"This is a wake-up call," says one of the study's co-authors, Robert Knight, the director of Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. "It is not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums."
The researchers conducted the study by using electroencephalograph, or EEG, to measure the brain activity of two groups of 9- and 10-year-olds--one from low-income backgrounds, the other from high-income backgrounds. None of the children involved had neurological damage or prenatal exposure to drugs and alchohol, but the brains of those from lower-income backgrounds were slower to exhibit responses to stimuli flashed on a screen in front of them.
Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist who is the study's lead author, says the electrical activity in the brains of many of the children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds actually bore some resemblance to the activity in the brains of adults whose prefrontal lobes have been damaged by strokes. "This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school peformance," he says.
Studies of animals have shown that their prefrontal cortexes can be affected by stress and environmental deprivation. And other studies of humans have shown that children from lower-income backgrounds tend to get significantly less stimulation in early childhood than those who are more privileged.
The good news offered by one study co-author--Thomas Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist--is that it might be possible to improve the brain development of low-income children through steps as simple as encouraging their parents to engage them in conversation more often.