Growing Up Poor Changes Brain Connectivity and Depression Risk

The US federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,250 a year.

The US federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,250 a year.

Key brain structures show weaker connections in poor children, a new study finds.

Brain scans of 105 children aged between 7 and 12 showed weaker connections in the hippocampus and amygdala, among other differences.

The hippocampus is a key brain area related to memory, learning and the regulation of stress.

The amygdala is related to processing emotions and also stress.

Poorer children had the weakest brain connections in the hippocampus and amygdala.

Poverty was also related to higher levels of depression.

Professor Deanna M. Barch, the study’s first author, said:

“Our past research has shown that the brain’s anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty.

In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress.”

Professor Joan L. Luby, a co-author, said:

“Poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children.

Previously, we’ve seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn’t see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids.”

The US federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,250 a year.

Children raised in poverty are more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses and to behave antisocially.

They also have poorer educational outcomes and worse cognitive scores.

Professor Barch said:

“Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development.

Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain.

And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Barch et al., 2016).

Brain image from Shutterstock

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Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.