Global Childhood Poverty and Neuroscience Workshops

Anna Meaney

How does socioeconomic status affect brain development, and can neuroscience aid in the effort to alleviate global child poverty?  As Dr. Martha Farah, the director of the Penn Center for Neuroscience & Society, says: “We’re not here because we want more photogenic brains on an MRI.  We don’t really care about their brains as an end in itself.  We care about their lives and the neuroscience is only interesting insofar as it tells us something about that.”  A working group with diverse research backgrounds put on the Global Childhood Poverty and Neuroscience workshops to attempt to shed some light on issues pertaining to brain development, neuroscience, and child poverty. Included in the first workshop was Dr. Martha Farah; Dr. Sebastian Lipina, a visiting academic from the National Council of Research (CONICET) in Argentina; and Dr. Allyson Mackey from Penn Psychology.

Dr. Farah presented research showing the widening gap in academic performance between children of higher and lower socioeconomic status (SES). A 2009 study by Stevens et al. looked at the effect of SES on attention by simultaneously playing two different stories in each participant's ear while asking them to attune to only one of the stories.  Participants with lower parental education attainment had a harder time focusing their attention on one of the stories.  Why does this difference exist? It is possible that this difference stems from higher unpredictability in lower SES households, where it could be more advantageous to have one’s attention spread out and attuned to many different things at once.  However, this finding can also mean that kids from lower SES backgrounds have trouble paying attention to just one thing, which can be a problem in a busy classroom.

Dr. Farah also discussed a Demir et al. paper from 2015 that looked at brain activity correlated with better math performance.  It was found that better math performance was correlated with activity in verbal regions of the brain in children from higher SES backgrounds.  However, for children from lower SES backgrounds, visual and spatial areas of the brain were correlated with better math performance.  This finding provided evidence that SES is associated with the way the brain processes information, which can have numerous practical implications about the way math can best be taught to kids from lower SES backgrounds, such as demonstrating math visually rather than verbally describing how something works.  Together, these studies look beyond just gaps in test scores and provide evidence for specific learning differences in children from varying SES backgrounds.

Dr. Mackey corroborated Dr. Farah's presentation by discussing how children from a lower SES background are more likely to be exposed to a number of risk factors that impact brain development, and how low SES exacerbates those risks.These include physical risks (e.g. pesticides, lead) as well as physiological risks (e.g. sleep disruption, lack of exercise, poor medical care, malnutrition). Additionally, there are psycho-social elements such as discrimination, eviction, crime, incarceration, unstable families, addiction, and low quality schools.  All of these factors are stressors on child brain development.

For the workshop, Dr. Mackey particularly discussed how stress and sleep deprivation can lead to changes the brain.

Evidence suggests that early life stress alters the reward system in mice (Peña et al. 2017). Mice who were stressed in early life and then encountered social stress in adulthood developed depression-like behaviors (Peña et al. 2017).  While mice and humans are different, children who have experienced more stressful life events have weakened connectivity between certain areas of the brain, potentially indicating a weakening level of neuroplasticity in children, which can make it increasingly difficult to learn new things (Park et al in prep).

Sleep is another domain in which low SES can exacerbate risk factors associated with brain development. Children from lower SES households are at a higher risk for poor sleep quality compared to children from higher SES households (Buckhalt et al 2011).  For kids from lower SES, sleep loss is associated with a great reduction in cognitive performance.  Sleep disturbances are also associated with reduced whole brain volume and dorsolateral prefrontal thickness, an area that is important in complex problem solving and decision making. (Kocevska et al 2016).

However, for children from higher SES who do not see the same reduction as those who experience sleep loss and are of lower SES, this is not the case.  Parents who are concerned about how sleep quality might be affecting their child’s brain development can track their child’s sleep to help determine if there are poor sleep conditions at home.  There are also specific steps that can be taken for parents who want their children to sleep better, such as making sure the child has a consistent bedtime and limiting media use around bedtime.  

Despite all of this research that link SES and brain development, the path from research to policy is a long one.  This reality was demonstrated to the audience with the example of the state’s car seat policy - it took 10 years for Pennsylvania to change the policy regarding car seats for children under 2 years old after a study was published saying children under the age of 2 are 75% less likely to die or be severely injured in a crash if they are sitting rear-facing.

Because it takes so long for science to influence policy, it is important to think about the small steps parents and educators can take now.  Neuroscience can have real world effects that can make a difference in children’s lives, and fortunately, the field is filled with scientists who are committed to thinking about the real-world implications of their research.

About the Author:
Anna is a senior at Vassar College where she studies Neuroscience with a focus on evolution.  She volunteered in The Changing Brain lab this summer.  Anna can be reached at with any questions.