Growing up in a poor family negatively affects the cognitive development of children . A study published in JAMA Pediatrics , which compared MRI scans of children born in families with lower and higher purchasing power, found lower volumes of grey matter (about 10 percent) in the brains of children born in poorer households.

Negative consequences of poverty

The European crisis has hit Spain hard, with 12.8 million people (27.3 percent of its population) at risk of poverty or exclusion. Since the crisis began in 2008, 1,320,216 people have fallen into this situation of vulnerability.

Many studies have focused on the relationship between poverty and alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, delinquency , etc. People in a situation of poverty experience many destructive behaviours due to intense emotional suffering and the awareness of having been forgotten or despised by the system.

But this study, published in JAMA Pediatrics , confirms previous research that has shown that children living in poverty see their cognitive ability affected : they perform less well in school, have lower scores on intelligence tests and do not achieve as high an educational level as their wealthier peers.

Poverty affects the brain physically

Although the situation of poverty has devastating social effects, this study seems to indicate that it would also have a physical effect on the brain , since poverty is associated with less grey matter (10 percent less) in the brain of a child born into a family with fewer economic resources.

The research was led by Elizabeth Sowell of the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and Kimberly Noble of Columbia University. The study found that the brain of a child in a family that earns less than $25,000 a year contains 6% less gray matter than that of a child whose family earns $150,000 a year.

Children living in families where their income level is below the federal poverty level have up to 10 percent less gray matter. The 2015 federal poverty level in the United States is $24,250 for a family of four.

This study confirms the need to take action against poverty

The researchers analyzed MRI scans and demographic data from 389 U.S. children, aged 4 to 22, and assessed the amount of gray matter in the entire brain, as well as the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus. The data were collected between November 2001 and August 2007.

The conclusions of this study, added to the already existing literature on the negative consequences of poverty, provide scientific evidence of the need to take measures regarding the situation of poverty in which many individuals live, since this situation negatively affects the development of the brain, and confirms the need for early interventions to reduce the risk to which children born in poor families are exposed.

Bibliographic references

  • Seth D. Pollak, PhD et al. Poverty’s most insidious damage: The developing brain. JAMA Pediatrics, July 2015 DOI:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475
  • Joan L. Luby, MD. Poverty’s Most Insidious Damage: The Developing Brain. JAMA Pediatrics, July 2015 DOI:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1682