Research shows impact of poverty on children’s brain activity

Summary: Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and whose mothers have lower levels of education, have weaker brain activity in areas of the brain associated with working memory, and are more likely to experience attention problems.

Source: University of East Anglia

Children born into poverty show key differences in early brain function – according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Researchers studied the brain function of children aged between four months and four years in rural India.

They found that children from lower-income backgrounds, where mothers also had a low level of education, had weaker brain activity and were more likely to be distracted.

Lead researcher Prof John Spencer, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “Each year, 250 million children in low and middle-income countries fail to reach their developmental potential.

“There is, therefore, a growing need to understand the global impact of poverty on early brain and behavioral development.

“Previous work has shown that poverty and early adversities significantly impact brain development, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty. But few studies have looked at brain function early in development.

“We wanted to find out more about the functional brain development of children born into poorer backgrounds – to see why many do not reach their full potential. This work is the first step in intervention efforts designed to boost early brain health before adversity can take hold.”

The team, which included researchers from the University of Stirling, carried out their study in Uttar Pradesh, which is the most highly populated region in India.

Using a portable ‘functional near-infrared spectroscopy’ (fNIRS) device, they measured the brain activity of 42 children aged between four months and four years in rural settings.

fNIRS systems shine near-infrared light into cortical tissue via sources placed on the head via a special cap, linked to a computer.

They investigated the children’s ‘visual working memory’ – or how well they are able to store visual information and detect changes in the visual environment when they occur.

“We use our visual working memory around 10,000 times a day. Children begin to develop this skill in early infancy and it gradually improves through childhood and adolescence. We know that it is an excellent marker of early cognitive development,” said Prof Spencer.

The study was conducted in partnership with the Community Empowerment Lab based in Lucknow, India. Participants were recruited from villages around Shivgarh in Uttar Pradesh.

They took part in a visual test involving blinking displays of colored squares. The goal of the test was to see if children could remember the colors well enough to detect that there was always a color change on one side of the display, while the colors on the other side always stayed the same.

Factors such as parental education, income, caste, religion, the number of children in the family, and economic status were taken into account.

Advertisements
This is a photo of a young girl with a brain drawn over her head
“Previous work has shown that poverty and early adversities significantly impact brain development, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty. But few studies have looked at brain function early in development. The image is adapted from the University of East Anglia news release.

The results were compared with children from families in Midwest America.

The research team found that the children in India from families with low maternal education and income showed weaker brain activity and poorer distractor suppression in the left frontal cortex area of the brain that is involved in working memory.

The study also demonstrates that portable neuroimaging technologies can be used in rural parts of the developing world, bringing innovative technologies to places most in need of early assessment tools.

“Although the impact of adversity on brain development can trap children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the massive potential for brain plasticity is also a source of hope.”

“By partnering with families in the local community and bringing innovative technologies to the field, we are hoping that together we can break this cycle of poverty in future work.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
University of East Anglia
Media Contacts:
Lisa Horton – University of East Anglia
Image Source:
The image is adapted from the University of East Anglia news release.

Original Research: Closed access
Wijeakumar, S, Kumar, A, M. Delgado Reyes, L, Tiwari, M, Spencer, JP. “Early adversity in rural India impacts the brain networks underlying visual working memory”. Developmental Science. 2019;e12822. doi:10.1111/desc.12822

Abstract

Early adversity in rural India impacts the brain networks underlying visual working memory

There is a growing need to understand the global impact of poverty on early brain and behavioral development, particularly with regard to key cognitive processes that emerge in early development. Although the impact of adversity on brain development can trap children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the massive potential for brain plasticity is also a source of hope: reliable, accessible, culturally agnostic methods to assess early brain development in low resource settings might be used to measure the impact of early adversity, identify infants for timely intervention and guide the development and monitor the effectiveness of early interventions. Visual working memory (VWM) is an early marker of cognitive capacity that has been assessed reliably in early infancy and is predictive of later academic achievement in Western countries. Here, we localized the functional brain networks that underlie VWM in early development in rural India using a portable neuroimaging system, and we assessed the impact of adversity on these brain networks. We recorded functional brain activity as young children aged 4–48 months performed a VWM task. Brain imaging results revealed localized activation in the frontal cortex, replicating findings from a Midwestern US sample. Critically, children from families with low maternal education and income showed weaker brain activity and poorer distractor suppression in canonical working memory areas in the left frontal cortex. Implications of this work are far‐reaching: it is now cost‐effective to localize functional brain networks in early development in low‐resource settings, paving the way for novel intervention and assessment methods.

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive the latest neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email daily from NeuroscienceNews.com
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. We do not sell email addresses. You can cancel your subscription any time.