Childhood Disadvantage Affects Brain Connectivity

Summary: Functional connectivity was reduced within and between several brain networks in children raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Researchers say a positive home and school environment can mitigate some of the effects.

Source: Elsevier

Many socioeconomically disadvantaged children face poor cognitive and mental health outcomes, and researchers are working to determine the specific factors that link childhood conditions to those poor outcomes, including how they might shape brain circuitry.

In a new study, researchers have examined how “neighborhood disadvantage” can affect the developing brain, including the brain’s connectivity between regions.

The study appears in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

Sarah Whittle, PhD, and Divyangana Rakesh, lead authors of the study, studied existing brain scans from 7,618 children aged 9-10 collected as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study.

Previous studies have identified differences in some brain regions in disadvantaged children, but the current study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure functional connectivity, or how well different regions of the brain are connected with one another, at rest.

Rather than considering a single measure of status such as household income, the new study classified children according to neighborhood disadvantage, which encompasses multiple risk factors such as pollution, crime and access to lower-quality education and healthcare.

Dr. Whittle said the purpose of the study was to “inform us of the mechanisms through which disadvantage impacts children’s development and functioning.” The team also wanted to investigate the role of factors such as positive home and school environments that may help reduce the harmful effects of disadvantage.

Analysis of the brain scans revealed that, in children with higher scores reflecting greater disadvantage, functional connectivity was reduced both between and within several brain networks.

“Our findings suggest that growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood indeed impacts the brain. Importantly, however, findings suggest that providing children with better home and school environments where they feel supported, receive positive feedback, and have opportunities to engage in different activities, can offset some of the negative effects of neighborhood disadvantage on children’s brain development,” Ms. Rakesh said.

This shows a little boy looking through a fence
Rather than considering a single measure of status such as household income, the new study classified children according to neighborhood disadvantage, which encompasses multiple risk factors such as pollution, crime and access to lower-quality education and healthcare. Image is in the public domain

The findings have policy implications in the context of designing interventions and policies targeted at youth and families exposed to disadvantage; they suggest a need to shift attention from a sole focus on family-level factors to community-level research and policies.

Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, said of the study, “These remarkable results show that improvements in the home and school environments can mitigate against the otherwise deleterious effects of growing up in a disadvantaged setting, providing a powerful message for the importance of public policies that provide more support at home and at school.”

About this neurodevelopment research news

Source: Elsevier
Contact: Rhiannon Bugno – Elsevier
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Associations between neighborhood disadvantage, resting-state functional connectivity, and behavior in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study: Moderating role of positive family and school environments” by Sarah Whittle et al. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging


Associations between neighborhood disadvantage, resting-state functional connectivity, and behavior in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study: Moderating role of positive family and school environments


Neighborhood disadvantage has consistently been associated with mental health and cognitive function, in addition to alterations in brain function and connectivity. However, positive environmental influences may buffer these effects. The aim of the present study was to examine the association between neighborhood disadvantage and resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC), the moderating role of positive parenting and school environment, and relationships between disadvantage-associated rsFC patterns and mental health and cognition.


In this pre-registered study, we tested this hypothesis in a large sample of 7618 children (aged 9-10 years) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Specifically, we analyzed the relationship between neighborhood disadvantage and system-level FC. We also tested whether positive family and school environmental factors, and sex, moderated effects. Finally, we investigated multivariate relationships between disadvantage-associated rsFC patterns and cognition and mental health.


Disadvantage was associated with widespread alterations in FC across both higher-order (e.g., default mode network and dorsal attention network) and sensorimotor functional systems; some of which were moderated by positive environments. Implicated connections showed multivariate associations with behavior, whereby disadvantage-associated rsFC was generally associated with worse cognition and mental health. Disadvantage-associated connections also predicted variation in cognitive scores using machine learning models.


Our findings shed light on potential mechanisms (i.e., alteration of neural circuitry) through which neighborhood disadvantage may affect youth cognition and mental wellbeing. This work highlights the importance of positive family and school environments in mitigating some of these effects.

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  1. Your all missing the boat. Yes, children in low income neighborhoods are at a disadvantage, but it is directly connected to poor nutrition. Which I didn’t see included in your research….
    Just take a look in the average low income cubbard and the answer lies therin.
    What you’ll find:

    Kraft Mac n cheese. Pepsi. Kool-aid. Potatoe chips. Cookies
    Spam. Top ramen. 70/30 ground beef. Frozen pizza
    American cheese. Fruit ‘drinks’
    White bread. Oscar Meyer bologna


    I wouldn’t expect my dog to perform with this lack of nutritional support, how can a child’s brain possibly develop to max capacity…?

    We need to start educating parents about nutrition, and how to maximize their $$ at the grocery store

  2. This is a DUH – of course it does. It makes sense. You only don’t see it if you’re in denial or haven’t grown up in poor neighborhoods yourself
    Let me explain:
    Seeing your family and neighbors struggle to live. Not having enough support in school….Like they won’t notice if you have a learning disability or anything in a school with little resources. They just send you to summer school. Over and over. So you just end up with more class – and you can not learn.
    It reinforces the idea that you are less as a kid, and hurts more because your parents (who have less time to assist you being that they have to work so hard to survive) get sad and angry because you were there hope. If a kid can’t make it in school, if they are considered stupid, the parents and teachers cannot do anything. Than the fault gets left on the child, and they take it out on the child this way no matter if they mean too or not. Add to that the issues of parents not getting their own health taken care of. Especially if it’s mental health. They then show some form of heavy addiction and things get worse. The cycle continues, and that’s not even with families that have low income and abuse going back thru many generations. The kid can either get sad, angry, or both. They may become a productive or unproductive member of society. But they are looking at a blue collar job at best where their boss will encourage working without a degree that proves they are worth an income that means they don’t have to work 60-70 hours a week overtime in a frustratingly toxic field that will wear out their bodies at a fast rate standing on concrete.

    But I did not get to see the study. Just the summery in a higher repetitive vocabulary.

  3. Wait so are these detrimental cognitive effects able to be corrected and overcame during adulthood or are they effectively irreversible once adulthood is reached?

  4. absolute lie. Between dentists and doctors, social workers and the worse teachers a perfectly healthy child ends up autistic due to metal filings in their head. I know the richer you are the more you can perverse the system and get away with it. Tagging and bagging, I know they made a corpus vile out of me in school. Being a child of 57ers from Hungary, please don’t patronize my intelligence. Been a Nazi system here since 47. After 67 worse. One misdiagnosis and the doctors are riding with it all the while I developed in pain and suffering. 55 years of my life manipulated by those connected from military down to bikers. hypocrites and vipers.
    Lot of sick birds in your profession.

  5. Pollution? Unless you’re talking lead poisoning, it’s probably not a causative relationship.

  6. Im surprised and disappointed the article only mentions positive family and school environments to mitigate the studies findings. Students are in school for a small part of the week, focusing on community resources, i.e. viable recreation programs o healthcare etc., are important too.

  7. Bullshit.
    Are you serious? And you are calling this a “scientific study”? I read your study and do not believe low-income neighborhoods, or “neighborhood disadvantage” have anything to do with childhood development. It is the role the parents play and how they affect the child’s development, not the neighborhood. Specifically, the children growing up in these “disadvantaged neighborhoods”, tend to be raised (the greater majority of these children) are being raised with an absentee parent, a parent who uses and/or addicted to drugs, a parent who has so many kids in one household,and even with only a couple of kids, aren’t really being parented, paid attention to, the parent shows little to no interest with their child’s schooling,take no active involvement with the child’s curriculum, his teachers, what the child is or isn’t learning, basically the tendency to not participate, not care, are not a good role model, are cognitively impaired in one way or another themselves, hence, the child has no parent to ensure his proper development to take place. Both in the home and at school. It’s not the neighborhood. It’s who are raising these children in these neighborhoods.

    Let me ask you this: which child is more disadvantaged enough to cause developmental delays in children? :
    1. You have a child being raised in a low-income neighborhood with a horrendous school sytem, rampant crime, gangs, etc.. But, he has two loving, nurturing parents who do everything possible(within their limits) to ensure their child is happy, well adjusted and take an active role, by making sure, on a consistent basis, their child is indeed learning, inside and outside of school, as bad as it may be, an active role in their development, and are actively parenting and being involved in this childs life.


    2. You have a child who lives in an upper middle class, predominantly all white neighborhood, in the suburbs. The area has the best schools in the state. On paper, this has all the advantages, so you would assume his development would be far ahead from the child in the no. 1 example.
    But there’s a caveat. His parents are abusive. They are constantly belittling this child, constantly putting him down, and making him feel he is not loved by his own parents. They withold their affection from him if he is not perfect, does less than what they expect, never measuring up. He grows up only knowing rejection, self loathing, very fleeting, with only tiny bits of, conditional love, or possibly not being loved or nurtured at all.

    Which child has the development of developmental advantage? #1 or #2?

    Please, give me your scientific opinion.

    I’d truly like to know. Especially before writing these papers that seem (to me) indicating these children should be placed in a better school system to have the advantage needed in their development.
    If that is what your paper is indeed, getting at, please stop. Putting these children in the best schools won’t make a difference in their development. Possibly cause greater harm, by them feeling like they are less than, having the “upper class” kids bully them, call them derogatory names, beat them up, make them feel unwanted and not belong. Absolutely making them feel “less than” and feel like trash. Them being with, forcing them to attend school with, and constantly be compared with the “more socially” advantaged” kids.
    You really think that will help? Then go back home to a single, maby drugged up parent who doesn’t give a shit. Better schools will help?

    1. Well, I’m no scientist, but if I had to make an estimate based on what made sense to me I would say that the cognitive detriment suffered as a result of a particular School likely has more to do with peer pressure from classmates then it does with academic learning. Kids are brutal, and again I’m no scientist but I grew up in a loving home and went to perfectly adequate schools but my cognitive ability is very much stunted particularly in regards to social skills and self-confidence and I absolutely believe that being bullied and pushed around as a kid by my peers at school played a major part in that. But for the third time I’m not a scientist so please don’t go biting my head off like you did to OP.

  8. I would think “disadvantaged” falls under some one-size-fits-all definition, which to me is hardly scientific. You might find similar results with children raised in less disadvantaged neighborhoods due to other reasons.

  9. The relationship between connectivity and neighborhood disadvantage is purely correlational, so the results of this study do NOT imply that decreasing neighborhood disadvantage will have any effect on conne tivity. Moreover, increased connectivity is not shown to have any relationship (causal or EVEN correlational) to academic/performance.

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