Magazine article Newsweek

How Poverty Changes the Brain; New Research Reveals the Connection between Stress, Poverty and Brain Development in Children

Magazine article Newsweek

How Poverty Changes the Brain; New Research Reveals the Connection between Stress, Poverty and Brain Development in Children

Article excerpt

Byline: Erika Hayasaki

The video tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan who at 15 survived being shot in the head by the Taliban while riding a bus in 2012. "I want to get my education, and I want to become a doctor," she says, adding that the Taliban throw acid on some people's faces and kill others, but "they cannot stop me."

A 15-year-old boy watching the clip on a laptop inside the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute seems unmoved by Yousafzai's story--his face is blank, his shoulders slumped. An interviewer asks how it makes him feel.

He shrugs: "I don't know." Nothing. The researcher moves on, asking what kind of person he hopes to be when he grows up.

"Nice," he says.

"Do you want to go to college?"


"Do you have plans after college?"

"I haven't thought about it."

"What kind of job do you want?"

"I haven't thought about it."

He is one of the 73 low-income teens USC neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been tracking in a five-year study designed to understand how culture, family relationships, exposure to violence and other factors shape the human mind. Test subjects from throughout Southern California watch 40 video clips, each depicting a different true story told by the person who lived it. Some stories--like Yousafzai's--were chosen because they are heart-tugging and inspirational. The teenagers watch parts of the clips again while inside an MRI machine, and their brain responses are recorded. Two years later, they are called back to the Brain and Creativity Lab, a hybrid learning center and campus innovation hub with an MRI-scanning lab, meeting offices, modern art and photography galleries, as well as a performance hall that offers literary readings, scientific presentations and cello concerts featuring Yo-Yo Ma. The testing process is repeated to track changes over time.

Early results show a troubling trend: Kids who grow up with higher levels of violence as a backdrop in their lives don't express as much emotion in their interview responses, and, based on MRI scans, also have weaker real-time neural connections and interaction in parts of the brain involved in awareness, judgment, and ethical and emotional processing.

Immordino-Yang's work is contributing to a growing field called the neuroscience of poverty. Though it's still largely based on correlations between brain patterns and particular environments, the research points to a disturbing conclusion: Poverty and the conditions that often accompany it--violence, excessive noise, chaos at home, pollution, malnutrition, abuse and parents without jobs--can affect the interactions, formation and pruning of connections in the young brain.

Two recent influential reports cracked open a public conversation on the matter. In one, researchers found that impoverished children had less gray matter--brain tissue that supports information processing and executive behavior--in their hippocampus (involved in memory), frontal lobe (involved in decision making, problem solving, impulse control, judgment, and social and emotional behavior) and temporal lobe (involved in language, visual and auditory processing and self-awareness). Working together, these brain areas are crucial for following instructions, paying attention and overall learning--some of the keys to academic success.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, examined 389 people between 4 and 22 years old. A quarter of the participants came from homes well below the federal poverty level ($24,230 annual income for a family of four in 2016). Children from the poorest backgrounds showed greater diminishment of gray matter and scored lower on standardized tests.

The second key study, published in Nature Neuroscience , also in 2015 , looked at 1,099 people between ages 3 and 20, and found that children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year. …

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