Nov 04, 2013

    Childhood poverty linked to brain development


    CHILDREN who grow up in poor families may have smaller brains than their more well-off peers, says a new study. But good parenting may help overcome that disadvantage.

    Researchers found that kids who grew up poor tended to have smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes. Those areas of the brain are partly responsible for regulating memory and emotions.

    "Generally speaking, larger brains within a certain range of normal are healthier brains," Dr Joan Luby, the study's lead author, said.

    "Having a smaller brain within a certain range of normal is generally not healthy. It's associated with poorer outcomes," Dr Luby, who is a professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, told Reuters Health.

    Prior studies looking at poverty and brain size found similar patterns. But she and her colleagues also wanted to look at what may bring about brain changes.

    They found that kids tended to have smaller brains when they had experienced stressful life events or when their parents were hostile or unsupportive.

    For their report, published in Jama Pediatrics, Dr Luby and her colleagues used data from a study of 145 children from in and around St Louis. The children were between the ages of six and 12 at the time their brains were imaged and had been participating in annual screenings since they were in pre-school.

    The screenings included tests for stress and whether or not the children had entered puberty.

    During one session, parents and their children were observed interacting together and the researchers assessed parenting styles.

    The study cannot prove that poverty or parenting causes changes in brain size, but the findings suggest that the chance that poor children will have smaller brains may be reduced with supportive parenting, Dr Luby said.

    She added that kids would do best with parents who are sensitive, nurturing, attentive and emotionally available.

    Dr Charles Nelson, a professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, said: "It's not as if those affluent families are protected from these same (parenting) issues. The reason it's probably more common in poorer families is that they're lacking in resources and trying to make ends meet.

    "There is a level of background stress…that may keep them from being the parent they want to be."