Poverty Goes Straight to the Brain

Brandon Keim:

Growing up poor isn’t merely hard on kids. It might also be bad for their brains. A long-term study of cognitive development in lower- and middle-class students found strong links between childhood poverty, physiological stress and adult memory.
The findings support a neurobiological hypothesis for why impoverished children consistently fare worse than their middle-class counterparts in school, and eventually in life.

“Chronically elevated physiological stress is a plausible model for how poverty could get into the brain and eventually interfere with achievement,” wrote Cornell University child-development researchers Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For decades, education researchers have documented the disproportionately low academic performance of poor children and teenagers living in poverty. Called the achievement gap, its proposed sociological explanations are many. Compared to well-off kids, poor children tend to go to ill-equipped and ill-taught schools, have fewer educational resources at home, eat low-nutrition food, and have less access to health care.

At the same time, scientists have studied the cognitive abilities of poor children, and the neurobiological effects of stress on laboratory animals. They’ve found that, on average, socioeconomic status predicts a battery of key mental abilities, with deficits showing up in kindergarten and continuing through middle school. Scientists also found that hormones produced in response to stress literally wear down the brains of animals.