What Happens to the Brains of Children in Poverty and How that Changes the Way They Develop

What Happens to the Brains of Children in Poverty and How that Changes the Way They Develop

Poverty is associated with various deficiencies of resources that are necessary for the optimal growth of human body and brain. Not only the physical growth, but mental growth of the individual right from the birth to later stages of life are affected by poverty. Poor health conditions, including nutritional deficiency and poor hygiene increase the risk factors for developing any serious medical illness. Apart from physical health consequences, which are more commonly observed due to higher prevalence of diseases and routine hospitalisations of poor people, impact of poverty on psychological health is mostly neglected. Psychological health can get disturbed due to poverty in various domains of functioning like academic, emotional, personal, cognitive, and relationships. This impact is laid down from early weeks of child’s growth. The first five years are considered most crucial for the healthy growth of the brain in humans. Due to differing levels of poverty to which a child can be exposed, the impact of poverty on brain dysfunction is also varied.

Most common dysfunction areas studied among children living under poverty are neurocognition (executive function, memory, reading ability, IQ, attention, perceptual speed and accuracy, reasoning, decision making), academic success, emotional development, developmental disorders and delays, learning disability, and other areas of mental health. It has been found in studies across various laboratories and countries that all these domains are found dysfunctional in poor children as compared to children from non-poor families.

The extent of impact depends on various risk factors like low parental education, low socioeconomic status, unemployment of parents, low annual income of family, number of family members, criminal history of family members, exposure to hazardous substances like lead, tobacco, air pollution etc. The studies indicate that the specific effects of poverty on children include increased school drop-out rates, repeating a grade, suspension from school, learning disabilities, higher depression rates, anti-social behaviors, poor social skills, memory deficits, language abnormalities, delayed achievement of developmental milestones, low IQ levels, ADHD and other mental illnesses.

One study has been conducted about the neurocognitive effects of poverty and neglect on 65 children (23 girls, 42 boys with mean age of 11 years). They assessed the performance of children on various tests like Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) for measuring executive function, Children’s Memory Scale for memory performance, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) to measure intellectual functioning, and also several mental health outcomes like depression, ADHD, learning disorders, developmental delays, and behavioural disorders among others. They found that 33–52 per cent of children had below average intellectual performance, 36–55 per cent had below average memory ability, 36–47 per cent had below average executive functioning. Group differences with same-age peers indicated that 60 per cent of poor children had developmental delays, compared to 10–20 per cent for non-poor children, 80 per cent had ADHD compared to 3–7 per cent for non-poor children, and 28 per cent had learning disorders compared to 5 per cent among non-poor counterparts. Hundred per cent of their sample had emotional/behavioural disorders compared to 46 per cent of the general population.

These results were similar to those populations of children whose brain development was interrupted during early childhood due to disorders or other diseases. Clearly, for children living under poor conditions, the brain growth is highly compromised in functioning of various important domains. These children, when grown-up, may face serious difficulties in various life areas like occupation, relationships, social skills, and emotional health. The need to identify and manage such altered functions is ever increasing. Most criminal activities are generally prevalent among individuals living under poverty-laden conditions. Lack of access to education and health resources make them alienated and increases social malfunctions. Such losses in health and occupation pose heavy burdens on social progress and economy of any nation, especially developing countries like India.

These consequences affect society at large and perpetuate the cycle of poor health among a major class of individuals of society.

Studies have repeatedly indicated that two brain areas that are most affected due to poverty are amygdala and hippocampus. It has been found that size of both these areas is reduced in poor children, including low concentration of grey and white matter. Other than the sizes or volumes of these areas, the neural connectivity of these areas with other neuroanatomical sites is also altered among poor children.

A group of researchers studied neural connectivity in brains of 105 children to see the mediating effects of brain regions in relationships of poverty (measured through income-to-needs ratio) with depression. In their 12-year longitudinal Preschool Depression Study, children were assessed at baseline during their preschool years i.e. 3-6 years of age. Brains were scanned during their schooling years i.e. between ages 7–12 years. They found that two different routes of connectivity mediated the relationships between poverty and depression severity. These areas were left hippocampus/right superior frontal and right amygdala/right lingual gyrus.

The results demonstrates that poverty affects the connections between the areas of brain bilaterally (two different pathways at the same time) which in turn affects the severity of depression. Higher damage to these areas leads to higher depression levels. What seems to be the effect of poverty on depression in these children, is basically due to the impact of altered connectivity of these brain areas.

Many other studies support these findings, structurally and functionally. The amygdala is responsible for emotional regulation while hippocampus plays a role in long-term memory. Thus, storage of emotional memories, processing of emotions, regulation of emotions, learning from experiences, and using previous emotional experiences to guide ongoing emotional expressions are reduced in children living under poor conditions. This leads to higher rates of depression, may cause poor social functioning, and reduced overall emotional growth. Such children may become less socially apt in future and may lack competitiveness to succeed in life areas. It has been suggested that developmental trajectories altered due to poverty can be altered if early intervention and prevention is provided to such children. The human brain is malleable and can be altered further if right resources are made available for its healthy growth.

It is an emergent need to recognise the impact of poverty on brains of individuals who are not able to fulfill their life’s basic necessities. The effects of poverty can be seen from very early childhood days and stunted brain growth due to poverty can lead to various serious and dysfunctional mental health outcomes. It is indeed important that psychological health of poor children should be taken seriously for prevention of any later age negative consequences.

These consequences affect society at large and perpetuate the cycle of poor health among a major class of individuals of society. Similar efforts are being made by team of researchers at our lab in Department of Applied Psychology, South Campus, University of Delhi, under the supervision of Professor SPK Jena. He is leading the group of PhD scholars (including postgraduate students) who are conducting studies on neuropsychological functioning of slum children, residing adjacent to the campus area, who are underprivileged and poor.

The studies cover various domains of functioning like cognition, emotions, sleep, learning disability, attention and executive functioning, mental health, behavioural disturbances, among other factors. The primary neurological parameter for investigation is EEG which is acquired using BIOPAC MP35/36 devices. Studies are utilising various intervention programmes like alpha feedback, yoga, meditation, skill training, and basic literacy instructions among others, to bring out the changes in the EEG pattern of such children, along with other outcomes. Such community programmes aim for the welfare of such children and improve their functional outcomes to bring long-term changes in their lives. We hope that early interventions for these children would bring awareness about their conditions and help in advancing the research in this area. 


Tarun Verma is a PhD student at the Department of Applied Psychology, South Campus, University of Delhi. He is conducting doctoral research on effects of alpha feedback training on emotional and neurocognitive functioning of poor children residing in slums of Delhi NCR areas. He is a practising clinical psychologist and is interested in investigating about neuropsychological correlates of mental health with socioeconomic status. He completed his M.Phil. from Amity University. You can connect with him on Twitter @Tarun_Psych 


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