June 5, 2014

Socioeconomic Status and Brain Development: From Science to Policy

At a House of Delegates professional development session on May 16, 2014, Dr. Martha J. Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Neuroscience and Society, presented her research about socioeconomic status and brain development, and the implications that neuroscience could have on policy and education.

We know that kids from poor families often perform less well in school. With her research, Dr. Farah looked to determine what parts of brain development are affected by a child’s experience growing up in poverty. She studied kids in Philadelphia and New York City public elementary schools. Race, age, gender, and birth weight factors were controlled, while socioeconomic status varied.

Across three studies of different groups, the strongest relationships existed between socioeconomic status and language, executive function (especially cognitive control and working memory), and declarative memory.

The executive function findings led researchers to study prefrontal cortical thickness. They found the higher the socioeconomic status, the thicker the cortex – and the higher the family income, the larger the hippocampus. This aligns with findings that kids in poverty have more issues with memory.

Farah’s colleague followed children from birth through age 8, including observation of the home environment. Results showed that when it comes to language, environmental stimulation matters. Among the variables examined in this study, it is the sole factor impacting language development along with the child’s age at language testing.

When it comes to memory, parent nurturance matters. The warmer a parent is, the better memory the child has. This parental nurturance effect on memory also has been shown in studies with rats. Maternal care buffers pups’ hippocampi from the effects of stress, resulting in better memory and better stress release. This is true for kids in a high stress environment as well. Those with more nurturing parents had better memory and executive brain function.

Farah’s research found there is not a consistent conclusion for every poor kid. This fact can provide a way to destigmatize these children. Science highlights that there is opportunity to improve. This use of neuroscience recasts the issue from a social justice issue to a public health issue, which may be motivational for policymakers.

Farah believes that while there have been some interesting findings about child brain development in poverty, the science is very young and it is still premature to dictate policy based on neuroscience. She has reason to expect the application will only increase over time as more research is done.





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