Children born into poverty show key differences in early brain function

by Freya Lucas

April 04

Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) have found that children born into poverty show key differences in early brain function, with the potential for their research to impact on the way the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector understands and supports developmentally vulnerable children.

 

Researchers studied the brain function of children aged between four months and four years in rural India, finding that children from lower-income backgrounds, where mothers also had a low level of education, had weaker brain activity and were more likely to be distracted.

 

Lead researcher, Professor John Spencer, said “Each year, 250 million children in low and middle income countries fail to reach their developmental potential.There is therefore a growing need to understand the global impact of poverty on early brain and behavioural development.”

 

Professor Spencer noted previous research in this domain, which showed that poverty and early adversities significantly impact brain development, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty. But few studies, Professor Spencer said, have looked at brain function early in development.

 

Researchers wanted to learn more about the functional brain development of children born into poorer backgrounds, and gain deeper insights as to why many do not reach their full potential. Professor Spencer said “this work is the first step in intervention efforts designed to boost early brain health before adversity can take hold.”

 

The team conducted their research in Uttar Pradesh, which is the most highly populated region in India, using a specialised device to measure the brain activity of 42 children aged four months to four years.

 

They investigated the children’s ‘visual working memory’ – or how well they are able to store visual information and detect changes in the visual environment when they occur. This region of the brain was chosen, Professor Spencer said, because “we use our visual working memory around 10,000 times a day. Children begin to develop this skill in early infancy and it gradually improves through childhood and adolescence. We know that it is an excellent marker of early cognitive development,”

 

The visual test involved blinking displays of coloured squares. The goal of the test was to see if children could remember the colours well enough to detect that there was always a colour change on one side of the display, while the colours on the other side always stayed the same.

 

Factors such as parental education, income, caste, religion, the number of children in the family, and economic status were taken into account, with the results compared with children from families in Midwest America.

 

The research team found that the children in India from families with low maternal education and income showed weaker brain activity and poorer distractor suppression in the left frontal cortex area of the brain that is involved in working memory.

“Although the impact of adversity on brain development can trap children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, the massive potential for brain plasticity is also a source of hope.” Professor Spencer said.

The study, Early adversity in rural India impacts the brain networks underlying visual working memory, is published in the journal Developmental Science and is available to view here.

 

For more information about the Developmental Dynamics Laboratory at UEA’s School of Psychology, visit: http://www.uea.ac.uk/developmental-dynamics-lab/home

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