This Is Your Brain on Poverty

By Amanda Montañez on March 3, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast series on poverty in America. One message that stuck with me is just how many factors the poor have working against them—factors that, if you’re not poor, are all too easy to deny, disregard, or simply fail to notice. In the March issue of Scientific American, neuroscientist Kimberly Noble highlights one such invisible, yet very real, element of poverty: its effect on brain development in children

When considering such a complex topic, any sort of data-driven approach can feel mired in confounding factors and variables. After all, it’s not as if money itself has any impact on the structure or function of one’s brain; rather, it is likely to be an amalgamation of environmental and/or genetic influences accompanying poverty, which results in an overall trend of relatively low achievement among poor children. By definition, this is a multifaceted problem in which correlation and causation seem virtually impossible to untangle. Nonetheless, Noble’s lab is tackling this challenge using the best scientific tools and methods available.

First, it is essential to define the problem: in what specific ways does poverty impact brain function? To address this question, Noble recruited some 150 children from various socioeconomic backgrounds and used standard psychological testing methods to evaluate their abilities in several cognitive areas associated with particular parts of the brain. As outlined in the graphs below, the relationships are clear, especially in terms of language skills.

Source: “Socioeconomic Gradients Predict Individual Differences in Neurocognitive Abilities,” by Kimberly G. Noble et al., in Developmental Science, Vol. 10, No. 4; July 2007
Credit: Amanda Montañez

While the data represented above are fairly convincing, they are also incomplete. To demonstrate the physical effects of poverty on the brain, we must examine the organ itself. To this end, Noble’s lab scanned the brains of about 1,100 children and adolescents, and found clear structural differences based on family income. And remarkably, their results showed that those children falling on the poorer end of the lowest income bracket suffer exponentially severe losses in brain development.

Source: “Family Income, Parental Education and Brain Structure in Children and Adolescents,” by Kimberly G. Noble et al., in Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 18; May 2015
Credit: Tami Tolpa (brain illustrations) and Amanda Montañez (graph)

Of all the social issues we face as a country, poverty often feels especially overwhelming, and these sorts of research findings can exacerbate that sense of intractability. However, Noble’s latest experiment may provide support for one potential path forward. I encourage you to read the full article to learn more.