Poverty’s Profound Impact on Brain Development and Behavior

Summary: A new review connects low socioeconomic status (SES) with significant changes in brain development, behavior, and cognitive outcomes. The review synthesizes existing research to present a unified framework showing how factors common in low SES environments—such as poor nutrition, chronic stress, and substandard living conditions—adversely affect neurodevelopment.

This disruption can lead to diminished language skills, lower educational attainment, and a higher risk of psychiatric disorders. By outlining how these conditions perpetuate generational poverty, the review underscores the urgency of developing targeted interventions to break this cycle.

Key Facts:

  1. Low SES contributes to chronic stress and poor environmental conditions, which can inhibit neurogenesis and negatively impact cognitive development from an early age.
  2. The review provides a framework linking economic and social conditions with lifelong impacts on mental health, educational success, and behavior.
  3. It suggests the need for more research into specific interventions that could mitigate the effects of low SES on brain development and help break the cycle of generational poverty.

Source: De Gruyter

What determines mental health, school performance, and even cognitive development? 

A new review in De Gruyter’s Reviews in the Neurosciences suggests that poverty and low socioeconomic status (SES) are key contributory factors.

Other studies have examined the isolated effects of poverty on the brain or on behavior. However, this new review provides the first unified framework that uses evidence from the literature to directly link the brain changes that result from low SES to behavioral, pathological, and developmental consequences.

This shows a little boy.
So, how can poverty and low SES change the brain? Credit: Neuroscience News

SES refers to the social standing of an individual or family, and involves factors such as wealth, occupation, educational attainment, and living conditions. As well as affecting day-to-day life, perhaps surprisingly SES can also have far-reaching consequences for our brains that begin in childhood and persist into adulthood.

So, how can poverty and low SES change the brain? The review examines the negative effects of poor nutrition, chronic stress, and environmental hazards (such as pollution and inadequate housing conditions), which are more likely to affect low SES families.

These factors can impair the brain development of children, which in turn can influence their language skills, educational attainment, and risk of psychiatric illness.

For instance, families with low SES are more likely to experience increased stress levels, and these can affect their children from an early age. Sustained stress can reduce levels of neurogenesis — the growth of new neurons — in the hippocampus, which may impair learning abilities and negatively affect educational attainment and career opportunities in later life.

The unified framework proposed by the researchers also helps to explain generational poverty, which can leave the children of SES families unable to escape their situation when they grow up and become parents themselves. This vicious cycle can be hard to break.

Interestingly, the researchers provide an extensive list of proposed studies that could test the validity of their framework and find new ways to break the generational poverty cycle. These include focusing on the effects of low SES in specific brain regions, and identifying techniques to enhance the performance of affected children in school.

The review is timely, as inequalities in society widen. Identifying specific mechanisms behind generational poverty could help researchers and policy makers to develop new early interventions.

The new framework takes account of the multifactorial nature of generational poverty, and could pave the way for more holistic and sophisticated societal interventions that acknowledge this complexity.

“This research sheds light on the profound ways in which poverty and SES affect not just the present living conditions of individuals, but also their cognitive development, mental health, and future opportunities,” said Dr. Eid Abo Hamza of Al Ain University in the United Arab Emirates, who is first author of the review.

“By understanding these relationships, society can better address inequalities and support those in disadvantaged situations, potentially leading to interventions that can help break the cycle of poverty.”

About this poverty and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Mauricio Quiñones
Source: De Gruyter
Contact: Mauricio Quiñones – De Gruyter
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The impact of poverty and socioeconomic status on brain, behaviour, and development: a unified framework” by Eid Abo Hamza et al. Reviews in the Neurosciences


The impact of poverty and socioeconomic status on brain, behaviour, and development: a unified framework

In this article, we, for the first time, provide a comprehensive overview and unified framework of the impact of poverty and low socioeconomic status (SES) on the brain and behaviour.

While there are many studies on the impact of low SES on the brain (including cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and even neurotransmitters) and behaviours (including educational attainment, language development, development of psychopathological disorders), prior studies did not integrate behavioural, educational, and neural findings in one framework.

Here, we argue that the impact of poverty and low SES on the brain and behaviour are interrelated. Specifically, based on prior studies, due to a lack of resources, poverty and low SES are associated with poor nutrition, high levels of stress in caregivers and their children, and exposure to socio-environmental hazards.

These psychological and physical injuries impact the normal development of several brain areas and neurotransmitters.

Impaired functioning of the amygdala can lead to the development of psychopathological disorders, while impaired hippocampus and cortex functions are associated with a delay in learning and language development as well as poor academic performance.

This in turn perpetuates poverty in children, leading to a vicious cycle of poverty and psychological/physical impairments. In addition to providing economic aid to economically disadvantaged families, interventions should aim to tackle neural abnormalities caused by poverty and low SES in early childhood.

Importantly, acknowledging brain abnormalities due to poverty in early childhood can help increase economic equity. In the current study, we provide a comprehensive list of future studies to help understand the impact of poverty on the brain.

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