How Poverty Stunts Kids’ Brain Development

When U.S. scientists confirmed that lead exposure from gasoline caused permanent mental disability, deafness and a host of other health problems, the Environmental Protection Agency acted swiftly in 1973, calling for the incremental reduction of lead in fuel.

Child development researcher Seth Pollack of the University of Wisconsin–Madison hopes that people will come to feel the same way about poverty’s affects on children’s brain development. “There was a toxin in the environment that was actually altering children’s developmental biology,” he said. “I think now poverty is looking like that.”

Pollack’s most recent study, published July 20 in the prestigious JAMA Pediatrics medical journal, adds the missing piece to a puzzle scientists have long considered: Do poor children score lower on tests because of brain changes caused by the deprivations of poverty? Past research has shown that poor children have smaller brains than children who grew up in more comfortable circumstances. And other research shows poor children also tend to score lower on standardized tests than richer children. But Pollack’s statistical analysis of MRI scans from 389 children and teens over six years confirms a new relationship: Poor kids’ smaller brains are linked to their test score deficit when compared to middle class and rich kids.

“Now we actually know through this study that it is the delay of brain growth that is accounting for the lower test scores in school,” he said.

Pollack and his team analyzed 839 MRI scans from 301 economically diverse children across the U.S. The scans, collected from 2001 to 2007, were taken approximately every two years for each child, for a total of three check-ins. Drawn from six different places in the U.S., the kids were representative of U.S. demographic factors like income, race and ethnicity, and one-quarter of the —> Read More