News: AAAS 2008 Annual Meeting News Blog
Researchers Say Poverty Negatively Affects Brain Development
At a Friday morning news briefing, researchers said impoverished conditions early in life could have dramatic affects on the brain’s development and function.
Children who grow up in environments with family stress, negative social and environmental characteristics, and little cognitive stimulation may not fully develop brain areas critical for learning, memory, and language abilities, the panelists said.
Because poverty is generally associated with lower performance on many cognitive diagnostics, the researchers said poverty “presumably plays a role in the persistence of poverty across generations.”
“We are looking for why poverty gets under the skin and into the brain and the immune system,” said Harvard researcher Jack Shonkoff.
In stressful situations like poverty and violence, Shonkoff said, the body releases chemicals that affect organs including the heart and brain. These chemicals, he said, alter the hippocampus and affect cognition in the brain, and may lead to diabetes and cardiac disease.
To counter the negative effects of poverty early in life, the researchers urged schools and other organizations to encourage parents to read to their children.
“Encouraging kids to go to school is not enough to close academic achievement gaps,” said Columbia University researcher Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, adding that some parents should be guided on how best to help their children academically thrive.