Effects of PovertyOf all the social issues faced by a developing country, poverty often feels especially overwhelming. Of the many factors working against the poor, the effects of poverty on the brain development of children is probably the most daunting yet.

Researchers have long suspected a correlation between a child’s behavior and cognitive abilities and their socio-economic status. This correlation becomes even more apparent among people living in extreme poverty. In a 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience, a team led by neuroscientists Kimberly Noble from Columbia University in New York City and Elizabeth Sowell from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, California, imaged the brains of 1,099 children, adolescents and young adults in several U.S. cities. Their findings revealed that children from the lowest income bracket of less than $25,000 had up to six percent less surface area than children from families making more than $150,000. Within the poorest families themselves, income inequalities of a few thousand dollars were associated with major differences in brain structure and cognitive skills.

Within countries that live on less than a dollar a day, researchers have found other developmental problems such as stunted growth and cognitive issues. In an unprecedented study conducted in 1960, a team of researchers began giving out nutritional supplements to young children in rural Guatemala. The study was aimed at collecting data to test the theory that providing enough supplements during a child’s formative years would help in reducing stunted growth. This theory was proved in the early 2000s, when the researchers returned to check on the children who had received the supplements in the first three years of their life. They found that not only did the children grow one to two centimeters more than the control group; they even scored higher in cognitive tests. This experiment proved the effects of poverty on the brain development of children.

In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a study into the heights and weights of children between birth and age five in Brazil, Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the United States. The results showed that healthy children, regardless of their home countries, follow a very similar growth trajectory. Based on these results, the WHO established benchmarks for atypical growth. In countries like Bangladesh, India, Guatemala and Nigeria, over 40 percent of children meet the definition of stunted growth. In light of the growing awareness and consensus around effects of stunting, the WHO included the reduction in the number of children under five with stunted growth by 40 percent as one of its six global nutritional targets for 2025.

Similar studies were conducted in Brazil, Peru, Jamaica, the Philippines, Kenya and Zimbabwe, all with the same conclusion. However, pediatric cognitive development is a complex multidimensional problem and not all stunted growth, which affects an estimated 160 million children worldwide, is connected to malnutrition. Malnutrition is one side of this multifaceted problem; poor sanitation, stressful home environments, exposure to industrial chemicals, lack of access to good education and income disparities are other possible factors.

It would not be an overstatement to say that all research points to an urgent need to address the problem of world poverty. Factors such as lack of education, poor hygiene, lack of pre-post-natal care, nutritional deficiency, exposure to chemicals and stressful childhood are some of the paralyzing issues faced by those in extreme poverty. The daunting effects of poverty on the brain development of children have already been proven by researchers and new research and studies are further fortifying what is already known. In essence, even as officials start to take action in providing adequate nutrition, research cannot be clearer in building the case for the urgent need to eliminate world poverty.

Jagriti Misra

Photo: Flickr


Children can be underestimated. They are born with the ability to absorb the world around them, and their experiences shape them in unique ways. The effects of early childhood development can have a significant impact on their success when it is time for school and future careers.

By age three, children’s brains are 82 percent of their adult size. It is vital to exercise the brain in its earliest years in order to reach developmental milestones later. Everyday activities like talking, reading and singing strengthen young children’s minds.

Trillions of neural synapses, or brain-cell connections, form in the first few years of a baby’s life. Connections will be lost indefinitely if a child is not stimulated with interaction and early experiences.

Playing, speaking and singing to babies prepares them to have a larger vocabulary, succeed in school and even increases their chance of graduating high school.

“The evidence is vast: exposing children before the age of five to stimulating environments strengthens their language development, social and emotional health, problem solving abilities, memory function, use of logic, analytical skills and ability to cope with new situations – leading to significantly better performance later in school,” said Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer of Global Partnership for Education, in a Huffpost Education blog.

Albright points out that countries around the world have recently embraced the evidence and began to invest in their early childhood development programs.

Although early childhood development is important purely for the well-being of children, research has shown profound economic benefits as well. According to the Huffpost blog, for every dollar countries spend on pre-school programs, there is a $7 to $8 of economic, health and social progress.

Successful initiatives begin well before pre-school, with pre-natal maternal health, proper nutrition for breastfeeding mothers and adult caregiving skills.

Many cultures around the world benefit from classes that train the community to provide nurturing and age-appropriate activities in pre-school. Particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities often need extra efforts to create an engaging environment that will strengthen the cognitive development of children under two.

Quality early childhood care feeds a child’s ability to reach their full potential and contribute to their society.

Some obstacles developing countries encounter in establishing Early childhood care and education (ECCE) programs are a lack of funding, limited country capacity and low social demand. Organizations like Global Partnership for Education combat these barriers by providing technical and financial support, providing grants to finance the programs and supporting capacity development and knowledge sharing by pointing to the evidence.

Even though children do not talk back initially, they will learn and understand faster if they are engaged and spoken to. It is vital to educate populations around the world on the impact of early childhood care on development because it is not always prioritized simply for lack of knowledge. Quality ECCE can transform the resilience of communities and reap economic benefits.

Emily Ednoff

Photo: Flickr

How Poverty Impacts Brain Development in Children
Children living in poverty are affected by more than lack of nutrition and diet and enrollment in education. There are 600 million children worldwide who are living in extreme poverty, which has negative long-term effects on brain development, new studies show.

Recent brain scans reveal specific regions of the brain are smaller on children from poor backgrounds than children living with wealthy families. Underdevelopment in the brain leads to problems with depression, anxiety and stress.

Researchers measured the cerebral cortices, which controls cognitive processing, such as language and reading. Results showed a correlation between socioeconomic status and cortical surface area.

The research shows that poverty is linked to many other development issues. If brain development is impacted by socioeconomic status, education test scores will be lower than someone with higher socioeconomic status.

Children from poorer backgrounds may go to school hungry or tired resulting in a lack of preparation or cognitive function.

“It’s not enough to bring a child into the world, feed them and make sure they don’t get injured,” says Luby, Early Emotional Development Program director at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Almost half of the world is living on less than $2.50 a day, and 754 children die every hour.

The second factor that impacted children’s brain development was the parent’s education. Children coming from an educated family had a larger hippocampus, which plays a role in short-term memory.

This does not mean if someone is poor that his or her brain will be smaller and nothing can be done to help it. The research is available to help improve the development environment that will change brain development and help children worldwide.

In the future, there needs to be more programs that teach parents nurturing skills that will benefit their children, especially those living in poverty. Through these programs, nurturing will reduce negative effects on brain development in children.

Donald Gering

Sources: Compassion, The Guardian, Reuters, Science Magazine, Spring
Photo: Flickr

Learning to be Smarter: How Bilinguals Have a Cognition (and Communication) Advantage
Charlemagne once said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Learning a language is something most of us strive to do. Whether it’s travel, business, new friends or even literature, learning a new language is something that appeals to people for a wide variety of reasons. At its core, language learning is kind of like finding a key that unlocks new countries, cultures, and people.

However, recent studies have shown that there’s an advantage to being bilingual beyond the ability to immerse oneself in new places. Researchers have found that those who learn a second (or third, or fourth) language have more gray matter in the “executive control areas” of their brains in the frontal and parietal regions. This extra tissue supports memory management, reasoning, planning and problem-solving. The cognitive control required to determine which language is spoken in what context requires increased tissue growth that leads to better control over other brain functions as well.

The study, led by Dr. Olumide Olulade, found that this advantage was only present in individuals who spoke both languages out loud. English-American Sign Language bilinguals did not have increased brain matter while English-Spanish bilinguals did. Communication, the greatest part of language learning, is key to increased development.

Beyond enforced executive control skills, people who speak more than one language have been shown to have improved listening skills, multi-tasking abilities, attention spans and vocabulary in their mother tongue. Beyond this, they learn to perceive the world in a whole different way and come into contact on a deeper level with a greater number of people.

And the fastest, easiest way to learn a new language? Visit a new country. Live amongst new people, visit local haunts, read books in the new language. Fully immerse yourself not only in a new language, but a new way of life. That way, when you become proficient enough to speak to your new friends, you’ll be a true inhabitant of this new place. Becoming a global citizen not only means being able to interact with people from around the world, but also sharing their mindsets, cultural references and perspectives. Global citizens are knowledgeable and, more importantly, compassionate about people in all corners of the world.

Jenny Wheeler

Sources: PsyBlog 1, PsyBlog 2
Photo: ZDNet

According to a study published earlier this month in JAMA Pediatrics, children who grow up in poverty can be more likely to experience stunted brain development.

Low test scores and poor social interaction at school have been linked to poverty at home in the past, but these findings help provide scientific evidence for the correlation.

The study states that children living below the poverty line demonstrated “systematic structural differences” in their brains when compared to non-poor children.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke University. Tracking around 400 children and young adults between 2001 and 2007, the researchers took a brain scan of the participants every two years. These scans measured the consistency of gray matter in areas of the brain linked to good academic performance.

“It’s only in the last few years that there’s been any systematic research asking about the biological side of the story,” said John Gabrieli, an MIT neuroscientist who’s published similar studies linking poverty with brain development. “We have so much very strong evidence that there’s lots of room for brain plasticity all the way through adulthood.”

The “environmental circumstances of poverty,” as the study puts it, are most likely one the largest factors in limiting children’s brain development. These factors consist of practices and items that help stimulate brain growth, such as books, coloring items, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and someone to read to you.

While not the first study to link poverty with brain development, the JAMA Pediactrics study is the first to fully connect its results. Hopefully this study will open more doors for further research to be conducted on this subject and more progress can be made.

Alexander Jones

Sources: Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Star Tribune
Photo: Huffington Post