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Poorer Children Have Smaller Brains

April 28, 2015

If you wondered how much economics impact kids growing up, you can rest assured that science has provided some damning answers: growing up in poverty results in a smaller brain mass.

…Stanford University researchers found that children from low-income backgrounds tend to have smaller brains, overall, than their wealthier peers. The brain of a child whose family earns less than $25,000 annually is 6% smaller in surface area than a child whose parents earned more than $150,000, according to the study, published in Nature Neuroscience.

An additional study showed that children who grow up in poverty also have lower test scores, perhaps due to the way that poverty-stricken children’s brains actually function:

Researchers from MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research compared the brains of affluent 12- and 13-year-olds to the brains of less affluent peers. They found that one particular area of the brain — the neocortex, which plays a key role in memory and learning ability — is thinner in children from lower-income households.

This is an important part of the brain for young students, who are often tested based on their ability to recall large chunks of information. Children who had a thinner neocortex performed poorly on standardized tests, researchers found.  

More than 90% of high-income students scored above average on a statewide math and English/Language Arts standardized test, compared to less than 60% of low-income students. Differences in cortical thickness could account for almost half of the income-achievement gap in this sample, researchers wrote, mostly because the neocortex plays such a crucial role in performance on math and language arts exams.

Growing up in poverty is life-altering, brain-altering for these kids. Poverty literally causes a change in both the size of the brain and the way the brain functions. Money may not lead to happiness, but it may lead to a bigger brain.


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