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Poverty may reduce kids’ brain function

Dec. 6, 2008
Courtesy University of California, Berkeley
and World Science staff

In alarm­ing re­search re­sults that they de­scribe as a “wake-up call,” psy­chol­o­gists have found poorer chil­dren tend to suf­fer from re­duced brain ac­ti­vity.

“The stress­ful and rel­a­tively im­pov­er­ished en­vi­ron­ment as­so­ci­at­ed with low so­ci­o­ec­on­omic sta­tus” may be re­spon­si­ble, said psy­cholo­g­ist Rob­ert Knight of Uni­ver­s­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, one of the re­search­ers. “Fewer books, less read­ing, few­er games, few­er vis­its to mu­se­ums.”

Knight sus­pects prop­er train­ing can elim­i­nate the dif­fer­ences. His group is work­ing with neu­ro­sci­en­tists who use games to im­prove chil­dren’s rea­son­ing abil­ity.

As it stands, “kids from low­er so­ci­o­ec­on­omic lev­els show brain phys­i­ol­o­gy pat­terns si­m­i­lar to some­one who ac­tu­ally had dam­age in the front­al lobe [part of the brain] as an adult,” Knight con­tin­ued. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low re­sponse if they have low so­ci­o­ec­on­omic sta­tus, though not eve­ry­one who is poor has low front­al lobe re­sponse.”

In a study ac­cept­ed for pub­lica­t­ion in the Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­sci­ence, Knight and col­leagues found that nor­mal 9- and 10-year-olds dif­fer­ing only in so­ci­o­ec­on­omic sta­tus have de­tect­a­ble dif­fer­ences in the re­sponse of their prefront­al cor­tex, the part of the brain crit­i­cal for prob­lem solv­ing and cre­ati­vity.

Brain func­tion was meas­ured by means of an elec­tro­en­ce­pha­lo­graph, a cap fit­ted with elec­trodes to meas­ure elec­tri­cal ac­ti­vity in the brain like that used to as­sess ep­i­lep­sy, sleep dis­or­ders and brain tu­mors.

Al­though pre­vi­ous re­search had al­so sug­gested poorer chil­dren suf­fer from less brain stimula­t­ion, past stud­ies used “only in­di­rect meas­ures of brain func­tion and could not dis­en­tan­gle the ef­fects of in­tel­li­gence, lan­guage pro­fi­cien­cy and oth­er fac­tors,” said the uni­ver­s­ity’s Mark Ki­shi­yama, a mem­ber of the re­search team. “Our study is the first with di­rect meas­ure of brain ac­ti­vity where there is no is­sue of task com­plex­ity.”


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In alarming research results that they describe as a “wake-up call,” psychologists have found poorer children tend to suffer from reduced brain activity. “The stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status” may be responsible, said psychologist Robert Knight of University of California, Berkeley, one of the researchers. “Fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.” The researchers suspect proper training can eliminate the differences. Knight’s group is working with neuroscientists who use games to improve children’s reasoning ability. “Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe [part of the brain] as an adult,” Knight continued. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.” In a study accepted for publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Knight and colleagues found that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain critical for problem solving and creativity. Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors. Although previous research had also suggested poorer children suffer from less brain stimulation, past studies used “only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors,” said the university’s Mark Kishiyama, a member of the research team. “Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”