How Poverty Shapes the Brain

The Washington Post recently covered a research study linking poverty and brain structure in children.  The following are excerpts from this article.

In the largest study of its kind to date, the researchers worked with a team of neuroscientists around the country to record the brain images of 1,099 children and teens from ages 3 to 20. The researchers spent three years analyzing the magnetic resonance imaging scans.

“We see that children’s brain structure varies with parents’ educational attainment and income,” said Noble, who stressed that researchers cannot say whether poverty causes smaller brain structures.

The researchers have two theories about why poor children have smaller brains. One is that poor families lack access to material goods that help healthy development, like good nutrition and higher quality health care. The other theory is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could be inhibiting brain development in children.

Noble has embarked on a new investigate whether giving low-income mothers a small or large monthly sum impacts the cognitive development of their children in their first three years of life.

What are your feelings about this research, and the two proposed theories?  If evidence suggests a connection between poverty and brain development, what role will we, as educators, have in helping students in poverty to overcome its impact, and move future generations out of poverty?


Mike and others,

One question I have from reading the article (I haven't read the study yet) is if "6 percent less surface area" of the brain" is an important difference. Are bigger brains always better brains? Does a reduction of 6% brain surface area matter at all?

One concern I have, despite the researchers' caution that correlation is not causality, is that in public discourse this caution may be ignored, and small brain size will be given as the "explanation" for poverty, not factors like access by poor families to good jobs, health care, education, and the privileges available to the middle class and the well-to-do.

I am especially interested in Noble's next study, and hope that her sample is stratified to include -- and track -- parents with low literacy skills, and how that variable may affect children's performance in school. "Noble has embarked on a new study ... to investigate whether giving low-income mothers a small or large monthly sum impacts the cognitive development of their children in their first three years of life. She plans to recruit 1,000 low-income mothers from around the country, half of whom would receive $333 a month, while the other half receive $20 a month for three years. That research is expected to take five years."

I am interested in interventions that systematically address a constellation of interrelated causes of poverty and that can demonstrate, over time, that they can help a significant number of children (and their parents) living in poverty to permanently move out of poverty.

David J. Rosen

Thanks, David, for your insight on this report.  I agree with you that writers need to be very careful when covering research like this, especially in the press.  While the Washington Post does include the important distinction that correlation doesn't equal causation, it could easily be missed, if it's not made explicitly clear what that means about this research.  While it might not need to be spelled out so carefully in a journal article, it's much more important to do so in the press, where writers are talking to a much wider spectrum of people, across education levels.

I'm glad you brought up Noble's next study here.  I think it's a good next step, but I'm also curious how the results will be interpreted.  If the results suggest that this additional income does not have an impact on the brain development of these children, how may that be used in arguments against funding certain social programs?  Similarly, if the results suggest the opposite - that there is a correlation between income and the brain development of these children - how can we leverage these findings to support more pathways out of poverty, for youth and adults?

I look forward to following Noble's work and seeing the outcome of this study, and bringing those back to our groups for ideas.