Poverty Gravely Affects Children's Brains

by Savitha C Muppala on Dec 8 2008 5:31 PM

Poverty has always had a negative effect on educational achievements in children, but now recent research looks at the overall impact of growing up in low-income households on children. According to Martha Farah, neuroscientist from University of Pennsylvania, poverty can not only affect IQ of children, but also negatively impact the brain function and behaviour.

Brains of children growing in low-income environments develop differently as compared to children even from middle class backgrounds. Infact, growing up in low-income households seems to lay siege on brain functions such as language development, ability to plan and paying attention. Memory and ability to recall also takes a beating.

Upon comparison of the abilities of 9 to 10 year old children from wealthy households and those from deprived ones, scientists found stark differences in the brain function of the latter children, showing disabilities akin to the damage from a stroke.

Explaining the extent of brain debility, Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley said, "It is a similar pattern to what's seen in patients with strokes that have led to lesions in their prefrontal cortex. It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way."

Using an electroencephalograph (EEG), researchers evaluated the brain function of 26 children as they viewed images on a computer. The children were asked to press a button the moment they spotted a triangle with a tilt.

The researchers found that children from low income backgrounds found it difficult to spot the tilted triangles. They seemed unable to concentrate which perhaps affected their performance.

"It's really important for neuroscientists to start to think about the effects of people's experiences on their brain function, and specifically about the effect of people's socioeconomic status," says Martha Farah, director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Intensive intervention with the help of lessons and games can still pull children out of their deficiencies to assist them in the development of executive function.