Poverty Affects Brain Development, Academic Performance in Children

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Poverty levels appear to be associated with brain structural differences in children, affecting academic performance and future occupational attainment.

Poverty is known to contribute to academic deficits, but how this is related to structural differences in developing children was previously not known. Nicole L. Hair, PhD, of the University of Michigan, and colleagues, analyzed MRI data of 389 typically developing children and adolescents aged 4 to 22 years reflective of different demographics of income, race, and ethnicity in the U.S. to better understand the effects of poverty on academic performance and brain structure.

One quarter of the sampled households reported family income 200% below the federal poverty level. Poverty was found to be related to structural differences in the brain associated with academic performance, with the largest difference observed in children from the poorest households.

Children who lived below 1.5 times the poverty level had gray matter volumes 3 to 4 percentage points below the developmental norm (P<0.05), however those who lived below the poverty level had volumes 8 to 10 percentage points below the norm (P<0.05), which affected academic achievement. Children from low-income households scored on average 4 to 7 points lower on standardized tests (P<0.05), with about 20% of deficits tied to lags in the maturation of the frontal and temporal lobes.

In order to avoid long-term repercussions from learning deficits, the researchers suggest that additional resources be allocated to early childhood environments below 150% of the poverty level.

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Poverty Affects Brain Development, Academic Performance in Children

Children living in poverty generally perform poorly in school, with markedly lower standardized test scores and lower educational attainment. The longer children live in poverty, the greater their academic deficits. These patterns persist to adulthood, contributing to lifetime-reduced occupational attainment.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether atypical patterns of structural brain development mediate the relationship between household poverty and impaired academic performance.

Researchers performed a longitudinal cohort study analyzing 823 magnetic resonance imaging scans of 389 typically developing children and adolescents aged 4 to 22 years from the National Institutes of Health Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of Normal Brain Development with complete sociodemographic and neuroimaging data.

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