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Look What Austerity Does to a Child's Brain

SanShoot (CC BY-ND 2.0)

SanShoot (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The stressful conditions of poverty—“overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parent(s), exposure to violence, family turmoil”—can have toxic effects on the developing brain, permanently diminishing the ability to think clearly and calmly.

Profiling the work of Pat Levitt, a developmental neuroscientist who serves as science director of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Madeline Ostrander writes at The New Yorker:

These conditions provoke the body to release hormones such as cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex. Brief bursts of cortisol can help a person manage difficult situations, but high stress over the long term can be disastrous. In a pregnant woman, the hormone can “get through the placenta into the fetus,” Levitt told me, potentially influencing her baby’s brain and tampering with its circuitry. Later, as the same child grows up, cortisol from his own body may continue to sabotage the development of his brain.

In March, in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a group of researchers from nine hospitals and universities published a major study of more than a thousand children. They took DNA samples, made MRI scans of the children’s brains, collected data on their families’ income level and educational background, and gave them a series of tests for skills like reading and memory. The DNA samples allowed the scientists to factor out the influence of genetic heritage and look more closely at how socioeconomic status affects a growing brain. The scans focussed on over-all brain surface area, determined partly from the depth of the folds on the cortex, and the size of the hippocampus, a lumpy, curled structure nestled in the middle of the brain that stores memories. As might be expected, more educated families produced children with greater brain surface area and a more voluminous hippocampus. But income had its own distinct effect: living in the lowest bracket left children with up to six per cent less brain surface area than children from high-income families. [boldface added] At the lowest end of the income spectrum, little increases in family earnings could mean larger differences in the brain. At the middle and upper income levels, though, the money-brain curve flattened. In other words, wealth can’t necessarily buy a better brain, but deprivation can result in a weakened one.

A person whose brain has been undermined in this way can suffer long-term behavioral and cognitive difficulties. In March, a study appeared in the journal Acta Paediatrica showing eerie ultrasound images of fetuses that more frequently moved their mouths and touched their faces when their mothers were either stressed out or, even more so, when they smoked cigarettes—likely a sign of delayed nervous-system development. In a longer-term study published two years ago, neuroscientists at four universities scanned the brains of a group of twenty-four-year-olds and found that, in those who had lived in poverty at age nine, the brain’s centers of negative emotion were more frequently buzzing with activity, whereas the areas that could rein in such emotions were quieter. Elsewhere, stress in childhood has been shown to make people prone to depression, heart disease, and addiction in adulthood.

To those concerned about the general welfare, the entire body of research into the long-term effects of poverty on physiology and mental health, which goes back at least decades, suggests that poverty should be recognized in law as something like a violent crime against the poor.

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Alexander Reed Kelly
Former Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

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