A new study published in the Oct. 28 online edition of JAMA Pediatrics suggests that children growing up in impoverished environments with parents who lack good nurturing skills are more likely to have smaller brain volume.
“We’ve known for many years from behavioral studies that exposure to poverty is one of the most powerful directors of poor development outcomes,” lead author Joan L. Luby, MD, a professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a news release.
“A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on brain development. What’s new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience,” added Luby.
In the new study, Luby and her colleagues looked at the MRI scans of 145 children ages 6 to 12 who were enrolled in a depression study and followed since preschool. The scans showed that children in impoverished environments with parents who were not nurturing were likely to have less gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is closely linked to intelligence, while white matter is often tied to the brain’s ability to transmit signals between various cells and structures.
In addition, the MRIs showed that two key brain structures were small in children living in poverty: the amygdala, a key structure in emotional health, and the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical to learning and memory.
To assess how supportive or hostile parents in the study were towards their children, researchers observed how parents interacted with their children during an assigned activity.
According to the news release, Luby’s team found that parents living in poverty appeared more stressed and less able to nurture their children during the exercise. In cases where impoverished parents were rated as good nurturers, the children were less likely to exhibit the same anatomical changes in the brain as the children with less nurturing parents.
In an accompanying editorial in the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics, Charles Nelson, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, weighed in on the influence of supportive parenting, noting that similar results might occur in children who were not poor, but whose parents were not nurturing.
“It’s not as if those affluent families are protected from these same [parenting] issues,” he told Reuters Health.
“The reason it’s probably more common in poorer families is that they’re lacking the resources and trying to make ends meet. There’s a level of background stress … that may keep them from being the parent they want to be,” added Nelson.
Ultimately, though, Nelson agrees that the findings support the need for early intervention strategies that focus on good parenting to ensure healthy brain development.
“If we wish to protect our children’s brains, we must work hard to protect their young minds,” wrote Nelson. “Exposure to early life adversity should be considered no less toxic than exposure to lead, alcohol or cocaine, and, as such, it merits similar attention from public health authorities.”