Neighborhood poverty linked to decreased brain volume, function: study

While early poverty in the household is already associated with impaired brain development among kids, a new study takes it further, linking impoverished neighborhoods to kids’ smaller brain volumes and worse cognitive functioning.

Researchers from Washington University in Missouri analyzed data from over 11,800 kids aged 9-10 from 2018-2019 from sites said to reflect U.S. demographics. The study found kids from poorer neighborhoods performed worse on reading skills, memory and attention, among other functions, per a release.

Authors said many studies have focused on socioeconomic status at the household level, and less so across neighborhoods.

Data stemmed from the NIH-supported Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is said to be the largest long-term study of its kind in the U.S, per a news release.

A new study linked impoverished neighborhoods to kids’ smaller brain volumes and worse cognitive functioning. (iStock)

Findings were published on Tuesday in JAMA Network Open.

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“Current models indexing poverty and early life adversity do not commonly include neighborhood-level measures, despite growing evidence that consideration of the neighborhood context is important for gaining a comprehensive understanding of mechanisms associated with cognitive and educational outcomes in children,” study authors wrote.

Researchers explained that chronic stress can disrupt brain development by desensitizing receptors and damaging tissue. “Other possible pathways [include] emotional or material deprivation, disruptions in parent-child relationship, nutrition and exposure to toxins…” authors wrote.

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While household circumstances are important, the study authors said neighborhoods need to be included to better understand child development, citing so-called redlining practices; or the illegal act of denying services based on an areas’ racial and ethnic make-up.

“Consistent with our hypothesis, the results of this study indicated that neighborhood poverty was significantly associated with a range of cognitive function domains as well as bilateral prefrontal and right hippocampal volumes, even after accounting for individual household income…[meanwhile]…higher household income was associated with increased volumes in all hippocampal and prefrontal brain regions,” study authors concluded.

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