Poverty Affects Brain Growth and Development in Children

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

The American poverty epidemic is many things to many people. A cause to rally around for some, a target of political debate for others, and a fact of society often ignored by many. But, for the 46.5 million Americans living below the poverty line (Current Population Survey, 2013), it is a reality that brings challenges, stress, and hardships most of us will never face. 15 million of these Americans are children, born and raised in an environment that is dictated by their socioeconomic status. (Hanson, et al, 2013) These children often experience increased exposure to family turmoil, violence, separation from their family, instability, and end up receiving less support from their community. (Hanson, et al, 2013). Recent studies have shown that such an environment as a substantial impact on brain development.

The direct causes are not clear, but the differences in children’s brain growth and development are likely due to the fact that low-SES children generally experience lower cognitive stimulation and enrichment, are spoken to less and in less sophisticated ways, and are less likely to be engaged in literary activities. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Consequently, these children are more likely to suffer with learning, behavioral, mental, and physical health problems than children from higher-SES homes. Similar animal studies have also yielded the same results. When researchers manipulate their environments to limit stimuli and increase stress, the animals tend to have smaller brains, fewer neurons, dendrites, synapses, glial cells, and myelination when compared to animals that have not had their environments altered. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Twin studies show gray matter development in particular, is impacted by our environment verses our genes. (Hanson, et al, 2013) When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied children from birth to age 4, results showed that poor children lag behind in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain. The developmental difference in these areas likely explains many of the behavioral, learning, and attention problems observed in higher rates among lower-SES children. (Wood, 2013)



This figure shows total gray matter volume for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g002


This figure shows frontal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g003


This figure shows parietal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g004


A lack of nurturing may be a specific detrimental difference experienced by children in poverty. A study from the Washington University School of Medicine observed children between the ages of 6-12 as they interacted with their parent. Parents living in poverty were observed to be more stressed and less capable of nurturing impatient children. MRIs revealed that these same children had less gray and white matter in their brains, and smaller amygdala’s and hippocampus’s, affecting their emotions, memory, and learning abilities. (Whiteman, 2013)

Are these simply people displaying bad parenting skills? Shouldn’t we blame them instead of the child’s environment? In response to the August 2013 findings in Science, which stated that poverty hurts people’s ability to make decisions and has the affect of losing 13 IQ points (Thompson, 2013), The Atlantic published some comments written by people experiencing poverty first hand. A few of the revealing statement by one reader included, “I will never not be poor. I have proven that I am a Poor Person, that is all I am or ever will be. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. We don’t plan long-term because we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.” (Thompson, 2013) It is clear that the mindset and outlook of a person in poverty is very different than those living in higher socioeconomic classes. The sense of the “inescapability of poverty is so severe that one abandons long-term planning entirely.” (Thompson, 2013) This may help us understand how and why a parent in poverty interacts with, and relates to, a child differently than those without these issues.

The good news is that these developmental lags need not be permanent. With proper stimulation, these children can catch up and close the gap. Finding ways to provide an enriched, safe environment, teaching caregivers to be more nurturing, and giving children time to play and explore are of vital importance. (Wood, 2013) It is up to society to determine what can be done to close the gap, and give these children the same ability to take advantage of opportunities as their wealthier peers. It is not enough to simply leave these children to fail or succeed on their own. The cost to society, in terms of financial, intellectual, emotional, and health issues, is too great to simply be ignored. Personally, I hope to work towards my teaching certification after graduating from Cedar Crest with my BA in Psychology. By tailoring my education to serve those in urban, low-income schools, I can try to be a small part of the bigger need to improve the future of these kids.


Reference List:

Current Population Survey 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (2013). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/

Hanson, Jamie. Hair, Nicole. Shen, Dinggang. Shi, Feng. Gilmore, John. Wolfe, Barbara. Pollak, Seth. (2013, December 11) Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS One 8(12). Retrieved from: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0080954

Thompson, Derek. (2013, November) Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/your-brain-on-poverty-why-poor-people-seem-to-make-bad-decisions/281780/

Wood, Janice. (2013) Poverty Hinders Kids’ Early Brain Development. Psych Central. Retrieved from: http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/12/15/poverty-negatively-impacts-childrens-early-brain-development/63305.html

Whiteman, Honor. (2013, October 29). Childhood Poverty Affects Brain Development. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/268066.php


Human Language Development

As many of you are aware, I am a first time mom to a nine-month-old son, Dylan.  Watching the human brain develop has been an amazing journey over the last 18 months.  Ultrasound pictures revealed the development of structures; motor movements have progressed from reaching and grasping to crawling and climbing.  I fear I am in for nonstop chasing once he starts walking since he is already into everything!


The most exciting milestone that he is working towards is language.  As a very colicky, hard to soothe baby, I was assaulted with more than six months of nonstop screaming and crying.  We may not know what he was trying to communicate, but this was his only way to vocalize and have his needs met.  I also discovered that there are countless theories to explain this type of extreme infant behavior from digestive issues, to immature nervous systems, to personality and temperament, but that is a whole other topic that I could write about for days.  Happily, he has moved on from incessant screaming to continuous babbling and vocalization that amuses everyone and encourages everyone around him to carry on conversations, trying to image what exciting things he might be trying to tell us.

Language development in humans is one characteristic that separates us from all other animals.  Language can best be described as “communication through words or symbols for words.” (Wright, 2013)  What distinguishes human language from animal communication is the use of grammar.  These rules of speech enable individual thoughts to be expressed and comprehended by the listener. (Wright, 2013)  The path to this highly complex ability begins when infants develop early speech and comprehension in the first days, months, and years of life, even before formal introduction begins.  It has been observed that infants in every culture begin to develop language skills on a relatively fixed timetable, leading one to assume that progression of the developing brain in humans is designed to master all of the skills that make language and communication possible.

Scientists have long believed that an early critical period for successful language development exists in the first years of life.  This critical period may begin even earlier than previously thought.  Even in the womb, infants recognize speech and language sounds from the mother.  A recent study showed that infants at 30 hours old distinguish between their native language and a foreign language. (McElroy, 2013)  Each aspect of learning language likely has its own unique critical period.  Phonetic, lexical, and syntax are learned at varying intervals.  Phonetics are likely the earliest and most important key for building on later learning.  (Kuhl, 2011)

With so many parts of the brain involved in the complexity of language skills, it can take until adolescence to exhibit a mastery of the skills.  As the brain develops, higher areas come online, and the pruning of neural circuits begins while strengthening existing connections, language skills can be improved and begin to build.  Most of these skills are processed in difference areas of the left hemisphere, such as Broca’s area for verbal pronunciation and Wernicke’s area where incoming messages are understood and outgoing sentences are constructed.  However, the right hemisphere is also involved in understanding and interpreting meaning and messages.  Because each area develops at its own time and speed, language development is an ongoing process from birth (or before) into adulthood.  (Healy, 2004, p.183)  How language is used also develops and gains complexity throughout childhood.  At the basic level, language is used to satisfy needs and wants.  It then moves on to controlling behaviors in the self and others, establishing interpersonal connections, expressing likes and dislikes, asking questions and collecting information, expressing creativity and ideas.  Using language contributes to development and maturation of the brain and intelligence.

Four Stages in Acquiring Language

Several years ago, a new line of baby teaching tools exploded on the market.  DVDs, CDs, and other technology-based products promised early speech and reading abilities, and would increase your child’s intelligence level before school.  These products were quickly dismissed, however, when studies showed that television and other tech based tools could not develop infants’ abilities in the same way a live human can.  The presence of human interaction is critical for language learning.  Social understanding has been theorized as a “gate” that enables an infant’s brain to make the neural connections that process phonetic learning.  (Kuhl, 2011)  It is this critical factor that has been used to explain the drastic difference in language acquisition by children raised in lower socioeconomic status homes.  The SES correlation is actually a difference in the input infants receive regarding the quality and amount of language they are exposed to.  The complexity of language used by the child’s primary caregiver, or quality of motherese (speech patterns adults use that offers clear words, higher pitch, and longer pauses between sounds (Healy, 2004)) is the factor affecting development in language areas of the brain, such as Broca’s areas and the amount of left hemisphere gray matter.  Thus, social interaction, body language, context, and emotion are all important aspects of language learning that Baby Einstein videos cannot replicate.  The higher the quality of language input to the developing brain, the higher the quality output from the child as they learn to communicate.

As parents, we seek out information to create the best possible learning environment for infants and young children.  However, natural exploration and social interaction are the most important teaching tools we can offer.  Interactive play and hands on experience provides meaning to the words they hear.  (Healy, 2004)  Positive, loving interactions makes language input a pleasant experience and prevents tuning out, which can lead to poor listening habits.  (Healy, 2004)  Running commentary about our actions, events, and normal activities links words and conversation to rich descriptions and abstract ideas (Healy, 2004)  It is this complex layer of sound, meaning, rules, and immersed learning that enables complete language development using the entire brain and moving from babbling to first words, to self expression, to higher level reasoning.  As a mom, I am simply anxiously awaiting the day when I can say to Dylan, “I love you,” and he replies with his own expression of, “Lub you too, Mommy!”

The following website includes a great video that discusses the different theories of language development in children:  Linguistics: Language Development In Children


Here are a few videos of my little guy moving through the first year stages, as well as his ultrasound picture showing his development at 13 weeks gestation.



Dylan at Two Months:


Dylan at Four Months:


Dylan at Eight Months:



Healy, Jane M.  (2004)  Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence.  New York, NY: Broadway Books. p. 191-205

Kuhl, Patricia K.  (September 2011)  Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education.  Mind, Brain, and Education, 5: 128–142.  Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164118/

McElroy, Molly.  (January 2, 2013)  While In Womb, Babies Begin Learning Language From Their Mothers.  University of Washington News.  Retrieved from: http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/01/02/while-in-womb-babies-begin-learning-language-from-their-mothers/

Wright, Anthony.  (2013) Chapter 8: Higher Cortical Functions – Language.  Neuroscience Online: Electronic Textbook for Neuroscience.  Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.  Retrieved from:  http://neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s4/chapter08.html