Childhood Poverty Impacts Adult Brain Function: Growing Up Poor

First Posted: Oct 22, 2013 01:56 PM EDT

It turns out that poverty may affect the brain in more ways than you might think. Scientists have discovered that childhood poverty and chronic stress may lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult. The findings reveal the importance of combating poverty, especially when it comes to supporting children.

In order to examine the effect of poverty on the brain, the researchers examined 49 volunteers. These participants gave information about family income, socio-emotional development and parent-child interactions. The scientists them examined associations between childhood poverty at age 9, exposure to chronic stressors during childhood and neural activity in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation at age 24.

In the brain, amygdala and prefrontal cortex dysfunction has been associated with mood disorders including depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression and substance abuse. In this case, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the participants' brain activity as they performed an emotional-regulation task. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the amount of chronic stress from childhood impacted brain function during this test.

"Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult," said K. Luan Phan, one of the researchers, in a news release.

In fact, the researchers found that test subjects who had lower family incomes at age 9 exhibited greater activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with negative emotions. In addition, they showed less activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that regulates negative emotion.

"This serves as a brain-behavioral index of a person's day-to-day ability to cope with stress and negative emotions as they encounter them," said Phan in a news release.

The findings reveal the importance of combating poverty. More specifically, they show how brain function can be affected into adulthood after a stressful childhood. This, in turn, shows a little bit more about how damaging poverty can really be.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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