Nurturing may protect kids from brain changes linked to poverty

October 28, 2013
Nurturing may protect kids from brain changes linked to poverty
An MRI scan highlights the hippocampus (pink) in a child's brain. Washington University researchers found that poor children with parents who were not very nurturing were likely to have a smaller hippocampus than those raised by more attentive parents. Credit: Washington University Early Emotional Development Program

Growing up in poverty can have long-lasting, negative consequences for a child. But for poor children raised by parents who lack nurturing skills, the effects may be particularly worrisome, according to a new study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Among living in poverty, the researchers identified changes in the brain that can lead to lifelong problems like depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress. The study showed that the extent of those changes was influenced strongly by whether were nurturing.

The good news, according to the researchers, is that a nurturing home life may offset some of the negative changes in brain anatomy among poor children. And the findings suggest that teaching nurturing skills to parents—particularly those living in poverty—may provide a lifetime benefit for their children.

The study is published online Oct. 28 and will appear in the November issue of JAMA Pediatrics.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that poor children with parents who were not very nurturing were likely to have less gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is closely linked to intelligence, while white matter often is linked to the brain's ability to transmit signals between various cells and structures.

The MRI scans also revealed that two key brain structures were smaller in children who were living in poverty: the amygdala, a key structure in emotional health, and the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical to learning and memory.

"We've known for many years from behavioral studies that exposure to poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children," said principal investigator Joan L. Luby, MD, a Washington University child psychiatrist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "A growing number of neuroscience and brain-imaging studies recently have shown that poverty also has a negative effect on .

"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."

Nurturing may protect kids from brain changes linked to poverty
Joan Luby, M.D., and her colleagues analyzed MRI scans of young children to determine that poverty and lack of nurturing were linked to changes in brain anatomy. Credit: Robert Boston

Luby, a professor of psychiatry and director of the university's Early Emotional Development Program, is in the midst of a long-term study of childhood depression. As part of the Preschool Depression Study, she has been following 305 healthy and depressed kids since they were in preschool. As the children have grown, they also have received MRI scans that track brain development.

"We actually stumbled upon this finding," she said. "Initially, we thought we would have to control for the effects of poverty, but as we attempted to control for it, we realized that poverty was really driving some of the outcomes of interest, and that caused us to change our focus to poverty, which was not the initial aim of this study."

In the new study, Luby's team looked at scans from 145 children enrolled in the depression study. Some were depressed, others healthy, and others had been diagnosed with different psychiatric disorders such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). As she studied these children, Luby said it became clear that poverty and , which often go hand in hand, were affecting brain development.

The researchers measured poverty using what's called an income-to-needs ratio, which takes a family's size and annual income into account. The current is $23,550 for a family of four.

Although the investigators found that poverty had a powerful impact on gray matter, , hippocampal and amygdala volumes, they found that the main driver of changes among poor children in the volume of the hippocampus was not lack of money but the extent to which poor parents nurture their children. The hippocampus is a key brain region of interest in studying the risk for impairments.

Luby's team rated nurturing using observations made by the researchers—who were unaware of characteristics such as income level or whether a child had a psychiatric diagnosis—when the children came to the clinic for an appointment. And on one of the clinic visits, the researchers rated parental nurturing using a test of the child's impatience and of a parent's patience with that child.

While waiting to see a health professional, a child was given a gift-wrapped package, and that child's parent or caregiver was given paperwork to fill out. The child, meanwhile, was told that s/he could not open the package until the caregiver completed the paperwork, a task that researchers estimated would take about 10 minutes.

Luby's team found that parents living in poverty appeared more stressed and less able to nurture their children during that exercise. In cases where poor parents were rated as good nurturers, the children were less likely to exhibit the same anatomical changes in the brain as poor children with less nurturing parents.

"Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons," Luby said. "They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food. Perhaps they live in an unsafe environment. They may be facing many stresses, and some don't have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don't have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances."

The researchers also found that poorer children were more likely to experience stressful life events, which can influence brain development. Anything from moving to a new house to changing schools to having parents who fight regularly to the death of a loved one is considered a stressful life event.

Luby believes this study could provide policymakers with at least a partial answer to the question of what it is about that can be so detrimental to a child's long-term developmental outcome. Because it appears that a nurturing parent or caregiver may prevent some of the changes in anatomy that this study identified, Luby said it is vital that society invest in public health prevention programs that target parental nurturing skills. She suggested that a key next step would be to determine if there are sensitive developmental periods when interventions with parents might have the most powerful impact.

"Children who experience positive caregiver support don't necessarily experience the developmental, cognitive and emotional problems that can affect children who don't receive as much nurturing, and that is tremendously important," Luby said. "This study gives us a feasible, tangible target with the suggestion that early interventions that focus on parenting may provide a tremendous payoff."

Explore further: New study confirms that mom's love good for child's brain

More information: Luby J, Belden A, Botteron K, Marrus N, Harms MP, Babb C, Nishino T, Barch D. The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: The mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatrics vol. 167 (11), November 2013, published online Oct. 28, 2013.

Related Stories

New study confirms that mom's love good for child's brain

January 30, 2012
School-age children whose mothers nurtured them early in life have brains with a larger hippocampus, a key structure important to learning, memory and response to stress.

Growing up poor and stressed impacts brain function as an adult

October 21, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Childhood poverty and chronic stress may lead to problems regulating emotions as an adult, according to research published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

New article reveals why people with depression may struggle with parenthood

October 15, 2013
An article by researchers at the University of Exeter has shed light on the link between depression and poor parenting. The article identifies the symptoms of depression that are likely to cause difficulties with parenting. ...

Childhood economic status affects substance use among young adults

July 30, 2013
Children who grow up in poverty are more likely than wealthier children to smoke cigarettes, but they are less likely to binge drink and are no more prone to use marijuana, according to researchers at Duke Medicine.

Children with brain injuries nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression

October 25, 2013
In a study presented Oct. 25 at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, researchers found that compared to other children, 15 percent of those with brain injuries or concussions were ...

Recommended for you

Small drop in measles vaccinations would have outsized effect, study estimates

July 24, 2017
Small reductions in childhood measles vaccinations in the United States would produce disproportionately large increases in the number of measles cases and in related public health costs, according to a new study by researchers ...

At the cellular level, a child's loss of a father is associated with increased stress

July 18, 2017
The absence of a father—due to incarceration, death, separation or divorce—has adverse physical and behavioral consequences for a growing child. But little is known about the biological processes that underlie this link ...

New comparison chart sheds light on babies' tears

July 10, 2017
A chart that enables parents and clinicians to calculate if a baby is crying more than it should in the first three months of its life has been created by a Kingston University London researcher, following a study of colic ...

Blood of SIDS infants contains high levels of serotonin

July 3, 2017
Blood samples from infants who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) had high levels of serotonin, a chemical that carries signals along and between nerves, according to a study funded in part by the National Institutes ...

Is your child's 'penicillin allergy' real?

July 3, 2017
(HealthDay)—Many children suspected of being allergic to the inexpensive, first-line antibiotic penicillin actually aren't, new research indicates.

Probiotic supplements failed to prevent babies' infections

July 3, 2017
(HealthDay)—Probiotic supplements may not protect babies from catching colds or stomach bugs in day care, a new clinical trial suggests.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

katesisco
1 / 5 (6) Oct 28, 2013
if you can read this article thank your Grandmother.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.