+ Study: Poverty Affects Children’s Brain Function

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In USA Today, we learn about a new study: it  finds that certain brain functions of some low-income 9- and 10-year-olds fall significantly behind those of wealthy children. 

The difference is almost equivalent to the damage from a stroke.  

Lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, says “It is a similar pattern to what’s been 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.”

This study adds to a growing body of evidence that shows how poverty afflicts children’s brains.  For a long time, researchers have pointed to the ravages of malnutrition, stress, illiteracy and toxic environments in low-income children’s lives. 

Some of us have seen this first hand.  (For those who haven’t, I recommend you watch DVDs of the shattering television series “The Wire.”)

Research has shown that the neural systems of poor children develop differently from those of middle-class children, affecting language development and “executive function”  — the ability to plan, remember details and pay attention in school.

Deficiencies like these are reversible through intensive intervention such as focused lessons and games that encourage children to think out loud or use executive function.

“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 Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among issues that are most studied: differences in language acquisition between low- and middle-income children.  The most famous study was done in 1995.  It transcribed conversations between parents and children and found that by age three, middle-class children had working vocabularies roughly twice the size of poor children’s.

For this new study, researchers used an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure brain function of 26 children while they watched images flashing on a computer.  The children pressed a button when a tilted triangle appeared.

What the researchers found: a huge difference in the low-income children’s ability to detect the tilted triangles and block out distractions — a key function of the prefrontal cortex.

“It’s just not functioning as efficiently as it could be, or as it should be,” says Kishiyama.

Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan, says that though the effects of poverty are reversible, children need “incredibly intensive interventions to overcome this kind of difficulty.”

The study appears online in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and will be published early next year.

source: USA Today article by Greg Toppo on 12/8/08

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