The neuroscience of poverty

PovertyBrainA small but growing group of neuroscientists is exploring a striking idea: Growing up in poverty doesn’t just limit children’s circumstances, but actually alters the very structure and physiology of their brains. I took a close look at studies published over the last decade in this new and controversial field.

Researchers report group-level differences in the size of certain brain areas, and more recently have begun correlating these differences with school performance. But interpreting these findings is really tricky, and the policy implications are huge. Then there’s the question of what it is, exactly, about poverty that would be having such an effect — stress, lack of enrichment, poor nutrition or medical care? All of the above? ““I think this is poverty,” one researcher told me. “Human brains are really resilient and versatile, and I think we can actually tolerate a whole lot without disrupting development. But I think what’s happening in poverty is that all of these things happen together for long periods of time, and I think that’s where these children’s brains are taking a hit.”

Yet so far the link between poverty and brain effects is correlative, and one team of scientists says there’s only one way to prove that poverty actually *causes* these effects — a randomized controlled trial in which some families receive a monthly bolus of cash. What really struck me was how divided researchers were about the idea of handing out cash as an intervention. Many voiced concern the money would be used the wrong way and that it wouldn’t address underlying issues. One old venerable in the field of child development didn’t hold back when I asked her about the prospect: “I think it sucks,” she growled.

[Read the story at PNAS Front Matter // December 22, 2015]

**Image credit: Jamie Hanson