Poverty and the growing brain: MRI clues

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  • Published: Dec 1, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Poverty and the growing brain: MRI clues

The poor brain

Program safeguards children’s brains from effects of poverty, says study, Gene Brody pictured

Poverty can have a seriously detrimental effect on the childhood development of the brain. However, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of children of families participating in the Strong African American Families Program has shown for the first time that supportive parenting and strengthens family relationships enhanced by the program can counteract the effects of poverty on brain development, according to a study by a University of Georgia research team.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, Gene Brody, co-director of the UGA Center for Family Research, and his colleagues have examined MRI scans of 59 adults who participated in the SAAF at age 11 with 57 adults from near identical backgrounds who did not, as control subjects. The researchers found that those who participated in SAAF, all of whom are 25 years old now, had greater volumes in regions of the brain that promote learning, memory, and stress tolerance than the young adults who did not participate.

"You can think of a brain like a muscle that we have to strengthen throughout childhood and adolescence," explains Brody, Regents Professor of Human Development and Family Science. "When that muscle gets the proper levels of stimulation and protections against stress that a nurturing caregiver provides, people tend to do much better." Of course, the nuances of brain development are much more subtle than the simple growth of muscular tissue, but as a figurative image it is a useful metaphor.

Developmental facets

Brody explains that scientists have begun to study the possibility that growing up in poverty may have effects on areas of the brain that support a child's learning, memory, mood and the ability to cope with stress. SAAF was designed to enhance parenting and strengthen family relationships among African-American families living in the rural South of the USA.

"Not all children and adolescents who grow up in poverty experience adverse outcomes. A subset of young people who receive supportive parenting develop resilience to the consequences of poverty," Brody adds. "We're expanding these findings using a controlled trial of a prevention program to test those ideas and show that supportive parenting has important benefits for brain development." He explains that his team has been following the participants since they were 11 years old. "Everything we've learned over the past 14 years has reinforced our conviction that care giving is incredibly important to many facets of human development including brain development," he asserts.

Stress reduction

Of almost as much importance is the parallel finding that in addition to effects on the brain, the SAAF participants also had lower levels of stress hormones circulating in their bodies. They also have lower levels of inflammation and are less likely to show biological markers of premature aging. "It's very gratifying to see scientific evidence that SAAF can benefit the health and well-being of young African-Americans," Brody adds. If the findings are independently corroborated, it could point to a strategy for policymakers and practitioners, including paediatricians and parent-teacher organizations to ameliorate the social inequalities through support programs. "Currently, SAAF is being disseminated to cities around the country," Brody told SpectroscopyNOW, "our hope is that a large number of youths and their families will have access to the benefits that SAAF provides."

Related Links

JAMA Pediatr 2016, online: "Protective Prevention Effects on the Association of Poverty With Brain Development"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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