Scholar Blog Post: Poverty and Brain Development

Poverty can have a huge impact on a child’s education. It is already a widely known fact that academic achievement and socioeconomic status have a strong correlation. This correlation is no coincidence as we consistently see children whose household income is below the poverty line do significantly worse in school on average than children who are not living in poverty. This achievement gap definitely has to do with tangible things such as ability to obtain resources like cellphones, computers, internet connection, extracurriculars, etc., but it also has to do with something far more detrimental. The early years of a child’s life are crucial for their brain development. Their brain relies on making connections through relationships with the primary caregivers. “…and if they don’t get that relationship it has an impact on development, it has an impact on the quality of synaptic connections that are being made at a rate of 700 per second in the first two years of life…” (Kulkarni) This interference not only hinders the brain from developing at the rate it needs to be, but severe childhood stress can actually release a chemical that destroys brain cells. This scary fact is unfortunately a reality for over 15 million children in America today.


The three scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles I found related to my topic of poverty and brain development are titled: “Poverty Linked to Reduce Brain Development”, “Prenatal Stress, Poverty, and Child Outcomes”, and “Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth”. The first article “Poverty Linked to Reduce Brain Development” by Visser SN, Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, Holbrook JR, Kogan MD, Ghandour RM, Perour R, and Blum- berg SJ. conducted a very in depth study of a large sample of preschool age children and checked back in with them once a year until puberty. They did MRI’s of all the children’s brains, interviewed both children and parents on any stressful or traumatic life events, and did a test of supportive vs. hostility of the parenting styles. The results showed that “Poverty was associated with smaller brain volume in terms of white and cortical gray matter, hippocampus, and amygdala. However, the effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by the parent’s/caregiver’s support or hostility on the left and right sides. Stressful life events mediated the effects of poverty on the hippocampus on the left.” and “Regression analyses confirmed that poverty was significantly associated with the possible mediator of caregiver education, but caregiver education was not associated with brain volume.” (Visser 4)

The second article titled: “Prenatal Stress, Poverty, and Child Outcomes” by Tess Lefmann and Terri Combs-Orme discussed the commonly known disadvantages of poverty stricken children such as lack of resources, access to health care, high-quality education, safe housing, nutritious food, etc., but they also go on to talk about the effects of poverty starting in the womb. “Less well recognized is the contribution of prenatal stress to these gaps, as poor children’s disadvantages often start early in fetal life due to high stress experienced by their mothers.” (Lefmann 577) Research has been conducted on both animals and humans regarding the effects of prenatal stress on infant brain development and the results show a strong correlation between high levels of stress and problems with brain development.


The third article “Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth” by Jamie L. Hanson, Nicole Hair, Dinggang G. Shen, Feng Shi, John H. Gilmore, Barbara L. Wolfe, and Seth D. Pollak, conducted a study of 77 children ages 5 months to 4 years from economically diverse backgrounds. They did MRI scans of their brains and examined the results. “Infants from low-income families had lower volumes of gray matter, tissue critical for processing of information and execution of actions. These differences were found for both the frontal and parietal lobes. In addition, differences in brain growth were found to vary with socioeconomic status (SES), with children from lower-income households having slower trajectories of growth during infancy and early childhood. Volumetric differences were associated with the emergence of disruptive behavioral problems.” (Hanson 8)

From these three scholarly, peer reviewed journal articles along with video we were assigned to watch for this course all relating to poverty’s effects on the mind and body, I have drastically expanded my understanding of the detrimental effects of poverty on the brain development of children. A lot of research has been done on exactly what aspects of poverty impact children and at which points in their life. I have learned how the negative effects of poverty start before a child is even born, due to the high levels of stress the mother experiences while the child is still in the womb. These effects can continue on from early infancy to the first few years of age while the brain is still in a crucial stage of development. The causes of these brain development issues can come from anything from the high levels of stress, traumatic life events, lack of caregiver connections, poor diet or not enough to eat, homelessness, etc.

Poverty is an unfortunate reality for many families across our country. Odds are that every one of us future educators will teach an impoverished child at some point in our teaching careers, therefore we must be informed on what growing up in poverty does to a child and what we can do to help them succeed. I hope to teach high school aged students, therefore by the time they get to my class, any negative effects on brain development will be done for the most part. This does not mean that there is no hope for them though, the brain has been known to have the amazing ability to repair itself and with extra help and guidance it is possible to help children in poverty succeed. Although their brain tissues associated with logistics and reasoning, which is important for my subject area of math, may have gotten damaged or underdeveloped during their childhood, I think it is still possible for them to excel in this content area. It may take some extra time, effort, resources, and help, but it’s important that we never give up on them.


Sources Cited:

Hanson, J. L., Hair, N., Shen, D. G., Shi, F., Gilmore, J. H., Wolfe, B. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2013). Family poverty affects the rate of human infant brain growth. Plos ONE, 8(12), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954

Kulkarni, C. (2012, October 19). Poverty and brain development. Retrieved May 03, 2017, from

Lefmann, T., & Combs-Orme, T. (2014). Prenatal Stress, Poverty, and Child Outcomes. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 31(6), 577-590. doi:10.1007/s10560-014-0340-x

Visser, SN. Danielson, ML. Bitsko, RH. Holbrook, JR. Kogan, MD. Ghandour, RM. Perour, R. Blumberg, SJ. Poverty linked to reduced brain development. (2014). Brown University Child & Adolescent Psychopharmacology Update, 16(1), 3-4.

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