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April 23, 2019
by Patricia Tomasi

Poverty Impacts Children’s Brain Development Negatively, New Study Confirms

April 23, 2019 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

It’s hard to imagine how, annually, over 250 million children in low and middle income countries worldwide do not have the ability to meet their development potential. Is there a link between poverty and brain development? A new study published in the Journal of Developmental Science found that poverty can indeed negatively affect children’s brains.

“To be honest, this was initially planned as a pilot study,” study author John P. Spencer told us. “My colleague, Sobanawartiny Wijeakumar, and I, flew to India with a portable brain imaging system. We set up a make-shift lab in rural India with our colleagues. We then collected data for about three and a half weeks. We hoped we would find something compelling, but we didn’t expect such a revealing and precise story in the end.”

Spencer is a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in the United Kingdom. The study investigated the early development of visual working memory in rural India. Visual working memory is a cognitive system used by the brain approximately 10,000 times per day. It begins developing in infancy and continues through to adolescence, making it an "excellent marker of early cognitive development" as the study explains.

The goal was to assess whether differences in functional brain activity associated with early adversity could be detected. Results were compared from rural India to results from a comparable study conducted in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2018 U.S. poverty statistics show that one in five children live in poverty in the U.S. which represents a child poverty rate of 17.5 per cent. Most of the children come from single parent families. 

According to a report by the World Bank Group and UNICEF, India has the highest rate of child poverty in south Asia and children are more than twice as likely as adults to live in extreme poverty. Twenty five per cent of children in India have no access to education. 

“We expected to find overlapping patterns of brain activity across the samples,” Spencer told us, “however, we were also particularly interested in any differences across cultures that might reveal the impact of poverty on early functional brain activity.”

As Spencer explained to us, visual working memory is a predictor of long-term outcomes, and open to early intervention.

“Thus, it is an ideal target for early cognitive interventions,” Spencer told us. “We wanted to see if we could detect deficits in visual working memory associated with early adversity with an eye toward future intervention programs targeting this cognitive system.”

To test their theory, Spencer used a portable brain imaging system in rural India. This allowed him to measure brain activity as infants and young children engaged in a visual working memory task. A range of children from different backgrounds aged four to 48 months were measured and correlations were examined between frontal brain activity and indices of early adversity (family income and maternal education).

“As expected, we found overlapping brain activity between the U.S. and Indian samples,” Spencer told us. “Importantly, some patterns of activation showed the same functional relationship to the task, so infants in India and infants in the U.S. were using the frontal cortex in the same way to solve the working memory task.”

Critically, Spencer told us, they also found the frontal brain activity in India was associated with family income and maternal education. For instance, a key part of the brain involved in working memory, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, showed greater functional activation in children with mothers from higher educational backgrounds. This replicates findings from a few other studies, but shows these effects very early in development.

“Our results linking maternal education and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex make a lot of sense in the literature on working memory and poverty,” Spencer told us, “but to show this link concretely in a ‘pilot’ study was quite exciting in terms of our longer-term plans.”

Spencer and his colleague are two years into a large-scale study in India funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their just-published data laid the groundwork for this effort.

“The current project is looking at a host of factors likely to impact early brain and behavioural development,” Spencer told us. “Our hope is to understand the mechanisms that underlie early-emerging cognitive skills like visual working memory and then to intervene with parents to boost visual abilities before early adversity can take hold.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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