These Brain Scans Of A Poor Child Vs. A Rich Child Will Break Your Heart


Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri released the findings of a new study last week that draws a link between struggles with depression and poverty. According to the report, children who grow up in poor families are at a much higher risk of suffering from depression than affluent counterparts.

The University analyzed brain scans from more than a hundred of children, ages 7 to 12 and found that the areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, stress regulation and emotions are attached to the rest of the brain in poor children “in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress,” Dr. Deanna M. Barch, PHd, the lead author of the study said.

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There have been previous studies on impoverished youth that show reduced gray and white matter volumes in the brain, compared with those raised in more well off families. That study outlined a link to problems in academic achievement but didn’t look into the deep and continuing psychological difficulties these children might face over time.

The researchers defined poverty using what’s generally referred to as an “income-to-needs ratio” that looks at the size of the family and compares it to annual income. The current federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four. The comparative MRI scans are below:

Functional MRI scans show areas in the brains of poor children with normal connectivity highlighted in red and blue, and weakened connectivity shown in green. The areas in green are among several areas -- detailed in other brain scans -- where connections are weakened in children raised in poverty. CREDIT Deanna Barch

Functional MRI scans show areas in the brains of poor children with normal connectivity highlighted in red and blue, and weakened connectivity shown in green. The areas in green are among several areas — detailed in other brain scans — where connections are weakened in children raised in poverty.
CREDIT: Deanna Barch (release)

Co-investigator, Joan L. Luby, outlined that previous studies showed some  behavioral problems that can result from brain development in children, but depression is another matter entirely.

Poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children. Previously, we’ve seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn’t see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids.

Researchers thought about factors such as emotional stress that comes from unstable environments as well as exposure to environmental factors like the lead poisoning that we are seeing in Flint, Michigan, poor nutrition and second-hand smoke all of which contribute to problems that these children see later on in life.

There are far too many things that the working-poor must deal with in their day-to-day lives that contributes to added stress and anxiety on parents and their children. Many must forgo meals to save money which causes poor nutrition in children. Some must work longer and harder hours which takes time away from being with kids to read to them, play learning games or help with homework.

Dr. Barch hopes that the link between poverty and poor outcomes doesn’t lock a child into a difficult life.

Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development,” she said. “Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain. And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories.

Here’s hoping. These children already have so much to overcome as it is. Adding mental illness to the list seems painfully unfair. If we honestly cared about mental illness in the United States, we would work to eradicate poverty. As it stands, policymakers barely pay a lip service to it and many try to even blame the poor.

Feature image via Wikimedia commons.

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