Studies Show That Growing Up In Poverty Changes Children's Brains

Two key areas are wired differently.

It shouldn't be hard to be a kid.

While a parent's job is to provide for their children, it can be exceedingly difficult for families living in poverty to consistently meet all of their child's needs. Insecurity of nutritious food, child care, health care, and even housing not only stresses out the parents, but affects the children as well. Unfortunately, a growing body of research has found that these disadvantages lead to more problems than just not wearing the coolest clothes at school.

A new study published inThe American Journal of Psychiatry has found that growing up in poverty alters brain connectivity in two critical areas: the hippocampus — responsible for memory and learning — and the amygdala, which regulates emotions and stress. This leaves impoverished children at an increased risk of poor academic performance as well as mental disorders such as depression, even before they are teenagers.

The researchers performed brain scans on preschoolers and followed up with mental health assessments for the next 12 years. 

"Our past research has shown that the brain's anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty," first author Deanna Barch explained in a news release. "In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress."

An unrelated study published in December 2015's Psychological Science found that the negative effects of poverty are so high, it is even able to overpower any genetic advantages a child may have in the United States. In the other countries where the researchers looked, comparatively more complete social welfare programs that care for the child's most basic needs alleviate much of the daily stress that comes with living below the poverty line.

Children's brains are quite plastic, meaning they're readily able to change and adapt. This accounts for their ease of learning during their formative years. Unfortunately, growing up in such stressful conditions negatively alters these structures that are key to predicting success. While the authors of the current study previously found ways to compensate for the volume differences in the hippocampus and amygdala, they state that there currently isn't a way to make up for those decreased connections.

Children who grow up in these conditions are unlikely to get the education necessary to rise above their circumstances and will likely continue the cycle with their own children. By understanding how living in poverty affects children, researchers can make recommendations for programs that reverse these trends, giving every child the best chance at a bright and happy future.

Cover image: Volodymyr Borodin/Shutterstock