Children born into a socioeconomically disadvantaged environment are more likely to exhibit neurological abnormalities than those born into a more economically secure environment, an NIH study suggests.
These neurological impairments appear to be independent of the cognitive and emotional delays that often accompany early-life poverty.
While subtle, the impairments may contribute to increased risk for learning difficulties, attention deficit disorders, and neuropsychological conditions, the study authors said.
“The size of the effect we saw was modest,” said study author Stephen Gilman, ScD, of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “However, the findings do indicate that an impoverished environment may pose a hazard for a child’s developing nervous system.”
The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, included data from 35 443 participants in the US Collaborative Perinatal Project (CPP), which was conducted between 1959 and 1974. Children born to CPP participants underwent neurological examinations, including the autonomic nervous system, at birth, 4 months, 1 year, and 7 years of age.
For the current study, the researchers divided the CPP participants into 3 groups: low, medium, or high likelihood of socioeconomic disadvantage. By 4 months of age, the most disadvantaged children (12.8%) had a greater risk of neurological abnormality than those who were least disadvantaged (9.3%). By age 7, that risk increased to 20.2% among the most disadvantaged children, compared to 13.5% among the least disadvantaged.
Pregnancy and delivery complications did not account for the higher risk of neurological abnormalities among disadvantaged children.
“These findings reinforce the importance of the early environment for neurodevelopment generally, and expand knowledge regarding the domains of neurodevelopment affected by environmental conditions,” the authors wrote.
The authors stressed that further research is needed to determine the mechanisms linking socioeconomic disadvantage and neural function, as this could lead to possible interventions to prevent impairments from occurring.