More than 13 million children in the United States – 18 percent of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, reports the National Center for Children in Poverty.
A study to be published next spring indicates that poverty may cause them to be lagging behind middle-class children in brain function as well as economics.
The difference seen among middle-class kids and low-income kids is as dramatic as the damage seen from a stroke in some cases, says lead researcher Mark Kishiyama, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley.
"It suggests that in these kids, prefrontal function is reduced or disrupted in some way,” he says to USA Today.
The study will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Poverty may impact children in many ways – malnutrition, drugs during pregnancy, toxic environments, illiteracy, and stress, all impact developing minds. The end result can be seen in brain function, specifically in an inability to acquire language, to plan, to remember details, and pay attention in school.
The good news is that these outcomes are reversible if caught early through focused lessons and games that encourage children to think out loud and to make decisions.
Though the effects of poverty are reversible, children need "incredibly intensive interventions to overcome this kind of difficulty," says Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan, to USA Today.
This study relied on an EEG (electroencephalograph) to measure brain function. 26 children watched images flashing on a computer screen. They were told to look for a tilted triangle.
Children from an impoverished background were significantly less able to detected the triangles and block out distractions, which is a function of the prefrontal cortex. The children were healthy in every other way.
The Journal study is being called a “wake-up call” about the impact of deprivation on brain development. Researchers believe this is a call for universal early childhood education.
Previous studies have shown that low-income children hear less language - approximately 30 million fewer words by the age of four and talking to children may be the key to boosting the performance and development of the prefrontal cortex.
Professor Marian Diamond, from UC Berkeley, stresses the importance of human interaction, no matter what your socioeconomic background.
She cites her work with Cambodian orphans who, despite poor living conditions, matched their American counterparts in acuity due to strong group interactions and mutual support.
Professor Thomas Boyce, one of the researchers from UC Berkeley, tells BBC News, “We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids - there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens."
Art and music programs are known to enrich and change the brain, but often they are the first to be cut in budget-strapped schools.
Poverty and inadequate health care go hand in hand. The SCHIP program, that offers low cost medical care to families, will be expiring in March 2009 and will be a new item on the agenda for President Obama. #