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Poverty linked to brain size; study says smaller brains seen in poorer children

SAN FRANCISCO – Poverty and lack of nurturing in early life may have a direct effect on a child’s brain development, according to a study that found smaller brain volumes in poor, neglected children.

The study of brain scans, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found children living in poverty without adequate nurturing had smaller hippocampi than those who weren’t poor or neglected. The hippocampus is a region of the brain linked to learning and memory. Poor children, even if they were not neglected by parents, were found to have less gray matter, which is linked to intelligence; less white matter, which helps transmit signals; and smaller amygdala, an area key to emotional health.

The study adds to previous research suggesting the stress of living in poverty in childhood can have lifelong effects on learning and emotional health, said Charles Nelson, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal. Monday’s findings brings researchers closer to better understanding how experience shapes biology, he said.

Researchers examined 145 children, age 6 to 12, who had participated in a larger preschool depression study and underwent magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI scans. Some in the study were healthy, while others were depressed or had disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The study found that while poverty did affect the brain, the differences in the hippocampus in poor children was a lack of care by parents. The study also showed that parents living in poverty who were rated as poor nurturers were more stressed and less able to nurture their children during a caregiver exercise.

The brain findings were consistent even after controlling for the children’s depression and the other disorders, said lead study author Joan Luby.

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