Poverty, Neglect in Childhood Affects Brain Development

A study of brain scans of preschool children found that children living in poverty who lack adequate nurturing early in life had smaller hippocampi than those who were not neglected.

A study of brain scans published in JAMA Pediatrics found that children living in poverty who lack adequate nurturing early in life had smaller hippocampi than those who were not neglected. Even poor children who were not neglected were found to have less gray matter (associated with intelligence) and white matter (helps transmit signals), and smaller amygdalas (associated with emotional health).

Joan Luby, MD, and colleagues from Washington University and the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology in St. Louis, MO, used data from a prospective, longitudinal study of emotion development in preschool children who participated in neuroimaging at school age to investigate the effects of poverty on brain development. Children were assessed annually for three to six years prior to undergoing a MRI scan, during which they were evaluated on psychosocial, behavioral and other developmental dimensions.

The preschoolers in the study were 3 to 6 years of age and were recruited from primary care and daycare sites in the St. Louis metropolitan area. They were behaviorally assessed every year for five to 10 years. Healthy preschoolers and those with clinical symptoms of depression participated in neuroimaging at school age/early adolescence. Poverty was measured by the income-to-needs ratio.

Brain volumes of children’s white and cortical gray matter and hippocampus and amygdala volumes were obtained via MRI imaging. Caregiver support/hostility were measured observationally during the preschool period; stressful life events were measured prospectively.

Investigators conclude that poverty was associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter and hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by caregiving support/hostility as well as stressful events. The authors conclude that their findings underscore the importance of attention to the deleterious effects of poverty on child development.

“Findings that these effects on the hippocampus are mediated by caregiving and stressful life events suggest that attempts to enhance early caregiving should be a focused public health target for prevention and early intervention,” the authors wrote.