Latest Brain Research – Low-Income Children Function Differently
Lest we sound terribly repetitious, we note that only a little more than a month has gone by since the last compelling new brain research study was released. In addition to looking at the differences in brain response for 8- and 9-year-olds, we have previously noted the importance of executive function in similar-age children, the mounting evidence regarding brain fitness for seniors, and the distinctions related to the brains of boys and girls.
The latest developments, however, are definitely the most shocking. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have reportedly now “shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.”
In simplest terms, the study determined that “normal 9- and 10-year-olds” who differed only in socioeconomic status “have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.”
Unfortunately, those detectable differences reveal what many had feared. Robert Knight, director of the Cal Berkeley Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and a professor of psychology states:
“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult. We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”
According to the researchers, what makes the study so unique is that it was the first to directly measure brain activity without examining differentiation for task complexity. The researchers found that children who grow up in resource-poor environments “have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating.”
The children studied did not suffer from any neural damage. Researchers pronounced these youngsters free of prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, and without neurological damage.
Yet the researchers found that children who grow up in poverty are not only more likely to have health problems, there is clearly an issue with brain development as well. While that lack of development could be due to poor nutrition or the inability to gain access to proper health care, the researchers suggested it more likely stems “from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”
Ultimately, whatever the case, the prefrontal cortex area of the brain for low-socioeconomic children simply was not functioning as efficiently as one would expect it to be.
While a startling development overall, perhaps the most important aspect is that the researchers insist “the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training.” Working with fellow Cal Berkeley neuroscientists, the professors are examining how to possibly “use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.”
“It’s not a life sentence. We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”
Still, as one professor offers, “The study is … a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development.”
The Key Debate
One of the key discussion points regarding students who struggle versus those who excel in the school setting is based upon the fundamental question of “nature versus nurture.” The study appears to reveal an extra level of importance on the nurturing element.
At the same time, there appears to be some noteworthy interventions that could offset that lack of nurturing, provided students are exposed to those interventions as early in the schooling process as is reasonably possible.
Flickr photo courtesy of peta-de-aztlan.