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Childhood poverty, stress may affect brain in adulthood

Oct. 22, 2013
Courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago
and World Science staff

Child­hood pov­er­ty and chron­ic stress may lead to prob­lems reg­u­lat­ing emo­tions as an adult, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

“Our find­ings sug­gest that the stress-burden of grow­ing up poor may be an un­der­ly­ing mech­an­ism that ac­counts for the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween pov­er­ty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult,” said Luan Phan, a psy­chi­a­trist at Uni­vers­ity of Il­li­nois at Chi­ca­go. Phan is sen­ior au­thor of the stu­dy, pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­t­ional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences.

Childhood poverty im­pacted how much the two re­gions of the pre­front­al cor­tex shown in orange cir­cles were en­gaged dur­ing emo­tion regu­la­tion, re­search­ers said. (Courtesy UIC)


A pre­vi­ous study found that poorer chil­dren tend to suf­fer from re­duced brain ac­ti­vity, but the new work fo­cused on ef­fects that may last in­to adulthood. The re­search­ers found that test sub­jects from lower-income fam­i­lies showed, as adults, great­er ac­ti­vity in the amyg­da­la, a brain ar­ea in­volved in fear and oth­er neg­a­tive emo­tions. But low ac­ti­vity was seen in parts of the pre­fron­tal cor­tex, a brain ar­ea thought to reg­u­late neg­a­tive emo­tion.

Amyg­da­la and pre­fron­tal cor­tex dys­func­tion has been as­so­ci­at­ed with mood dis­or­ders in­clud­ing de­pres­sion, anx­i­e­ty, im­pul­sive ag­gres­sion and sub­stance abuse, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors.

Phan said pov­er­ty’s neg­a­tive ef­fects are well known to set up “a cas­cade of in­creas­ing risk fac­tors” for chil­dren to de­vel­op phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems as an adult. But it has not been known how child­hood pov­er­ty might af­fect brain func­tion, par­tic­u­larly in emo­tional regula­t­ion, he added. Abil­ity to con­trol neg­a­tive emo­tions can pro­tect against the health con­se­quenc­es of stress, he not­ed.

The study ex­am­ined as­socia­t­ions be­tween child­hood pov­er­ty at age 9, ex­po­sure to chron­ic stres­sors dur­ing child­hood, and ac­ti­vity in ar­e­as of the brain in­volved in emo­tional regula­t­ion at age 24. For­ty-nine par­ti­ci­pants took part.

Childhood stressors could include sub­stand­ard hous­ing, crowd­ing, noise, and family tur­moil, vi­o­lence or separa­t­ion, Phan said.

Us­ing the brain-scanning tech­nol­o­gy of func­tional mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing, the re­search­ers eval­u­at­ed the par­ti­ci­pants’ brain ac­ti­vity as they per­formed an emo­tional-regula­t­ion task. Sub­jects were asked to try to sup­press neg­a­tive emo­tions while view­ing pic­tures, us­ing a cog­ni­tive cop­ing strat­e­gy.

“This serves as a brain-behavioral in­dex of a per­son’s day-to-day abil­ity to cope with stress and neg­a­tive emo­tions,” Phan said. Per­haps the key find­ing, he added, was that the amount of chron­ic stress from child­hood through ado­les­cence de­ter­mined the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween child­hood pov­er­ty and func­tion in the pre­fron­tal brain area dur­ing emo­tional regula­t­ion.


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Childhood poverty and chronic stress may lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult, according to new research. “Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult,” said Luan Phan, a psychiatrist at University of Illinois at Chicago, Phan is senior author of the study, published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A previous study found that poorer children tend to suffer from reduced brain activity, but the new work focused on effects that may last into adulthood. The researchers found that test subjects from lower-income families showed, as adults, greater activity in the amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and other negative emotions. But low activity was seen in parts of the prefrontal cortex, a brain area thought to regulate negative emotion. Amygdala and prefrontal cortex dysfunction has been associated with mood disorders including depression, anxiety, impulsive aggression and substance abuse, according to the authors. Phan said poverty’s negative effects are well known to set up “a cascade of increasing risk factors” for children to develop physical and psychological problems as an adult. But it has not been known how childhood poverty might affect brain function, particularly in emotional regulation, he added. Ability to control negative emotions can protect against the health consequences of stress, he noted. The study examined associations between childhood poverty at age 9, exposure to chronic stressors during childhood, and activity in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation at age 24. Forty-nine participants took part. Using the brain-scanning technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers evaluated the participants’ brain activity as they performed an emotional-regulation task. Subjects were asked to try to suppress negative emotions while viewing pictures, using a cognitive coping strategy. “This serves as a brain-behavioral index of a person’s day-to-day ability to cope with stress and negative emotions,” Phan said. Perhaps the key finding, Phan said, was that the amount of chronic stress from childhood through adolescence—such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, and social stressors like family turmoil, violence or family separation—determined the relationship between childhood poverty and prefrontal brain function during emotional regulation.