Family income & parental education affects brain structure in children


A study by Columbia University in New York, published in Nature Neuroscience, shows that brain development in children could be affected by poverty.

The research shows that brain regions crucial for the development of language, memory and reasoning skills tend to be smaller in those from poorer backgrounds.

The effects were most striking among the poorest families who took part in the study, where even modest changes in wages could have a significant impact on the structure of the children’s brains.

The brain regions involved are crucial for the development of language, memory and reasoning skills, making them central to a child’s potential to thrive at school and gain a good education.

The researchers scanned the brains of more than 1000 children aged three to 20 years old and, after taking genetic factors into account, found that the surface area of the children’s cerebral cortex tended to expand as family income rose. The surface area of the cerebral cortex was typically 6% larger in children from familes with an income greater than $150,000 (£101,000), when compared to families earning $25,000 (£17,000) or less.

The parents’ education had an impact on their children’s brain structure too, with scans revealing a larger hippocampus in children from more educated families. The hippocampus plays a pivotal role in short term memory and spatial navigation.

The study cannot say categorically what causes the brain changes, but the scientists behind the research believe they reflect differences in the environment in which the children’s brains develop.

A multitude of factors likely come into play: the children may experience more stress, live in more polluted areas, have less cognitive stimulation in their daily lives, be spoken to less, and their mothers may have had poorer diets while pregnant.

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