Does Childhood Poverty Affect Brain Development?

Encore: June 24, 2015

Is there a relationship between childhood poverty and brain development?

A study published in Nature Neuroscience earlier this year found that children of poor families have smaller brains than affluent children.CtD-Logo2 The study, titled “Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents,” was the largest of its kind to date.

The research team, which examined the brain scans of 1,099 children, adolescents and young adults across the nation, was led by developmental cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Kimberly Noble. Noble is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia’s Teachers College.

“We found that there were distinct relationships between parents’ education and children’s brain structure, as well as family income and children’s brain structure,” Noble told MetroFocus anchor Jack Ford.

For children in families that earned less than $25,000 a year, the study found that the surface of their cerebral cortex – the region of the brain that handles language, memory and reasoning – was six percent smaller than those whose families earned $150,000 or more.

Dr. Noble emphasized that the study’s results do not predetermine a child’s future brain development.

“We know that the brain is very, very malleable to experience. We think that these differences reflect differences in experiences that these children have had, and we have every reason to believe that by changing children’s experience, that may lead to amelioration of these findings.”

Dr. Noble is embarking on her next study, one which she calls “the first clinical trial of poverty reduction.” The five-year pilot study will recruit a large sample of low-income moms nationwide to receive either a large monthly payment or a modest monthly payment for the first three years of their children’s lives.  

“In that way, we’ll actually be able to determine the extent to which poverty reduction causes differences in brain function and cognitive development,” said Noble.


Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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