Scientists say childhood disadvantage impacts brain development

brain development, child health
© Sarayuth Punnasuriyaporn

The team examined a mix of factors such as pollution, crime, access to education and healthcare – they found that in over 7,000 children, these factors directly impacted brain development

When it comes to childhood, scientists, politicians and the public question what the impact of it is on how populations grow and develop. For decades, there has been scientific research that investigated the impact of growing up in a low-socio economic bracket has on child health, or how it shaped their future likelihood of going to university.

A study even found that intergenerational trauma can be passed down to a child in the womb.

Based on these ideas, different political parties form different understandings of what policy would best help young people to have increased health and opportunities. But when you remove the singular value of household income, what about the cumulative factors that still influence a childhood in the US?

Here, researchers look at the power of “neighbourhood disadvantage” and how it impacts the developing brain. Neighbourhood disadvantage includes multiple risk factors such as pollution, crime, and access to lower-quality education and healthcare.

Sarah Whittle, PhD, and Divyangana Rakesh, are lead authors of the study. They studied existing brain scans from 7,618 children aged 9-10 collected as part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study.

What did they find out?

The brain regions have decreased connectivity, where children score highly for living in areas with pollution, high crime, access to lower-quality education and lower-quality healthcare in the US.

Divyangana Rakesh commented: “Our findings suggest that growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood indeed impacts the brain. Importantly, however, findings suggest that providing children with better home and school environments where they feel supported, receive positive feedback, and have opportunities to engage in different activities, can offset some of the negative effects of neighborhood disadvantage on children’s brain development.”

In other studies, researchers established that there are differences in the human brain depending on a persons’ childhood advantage – but in this one, a team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure functional connectivity. Basically, how well do different regions of the brain are connected with one another, when the brain is resting?

Policies must address communities, not families

Researchers propose that policies created to improve outcomes (in health, life, and education) for these children growing up in high pollution and crime areas should focus on community – not just hyper-focus on the family unit.

Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, said of the study: “These remarkable results show that improvements in the home and school environments can mitigate against the otherwise deleterious effects of growing up in a disadvantaged setting, providing a powerful message for the importance of public policies that provide more support at home and at school.”

Read the full study here.


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