How poverty influences a child’s brain development

By IVAN SEMENIUK | Published  Jan. 25 2013 by the Globe & Mail

At first impression, the two groups of children were hard to tell apart: just regular kindergarten kids from different neighbourhoods in Kamloops, B.C. Yet, when they visited a mobile lab as part of population study he collaborated on, Clyde Hertzman remembers how their young brains revealed a striking contrast.

Both groups were asked to focus their attention on a series of sounds while researchers monitored their neural activity. Not only did one group tend to have a harder time with the task, Dr. Hertzman recalls, it “ had a systematically different pattern of brain responses to the test.”

How could children drawn from a city of just 85,000 people end up with wiring that was essentially different? They had grown up with any number of genetic and environmental influences affecting their brain development and behaviour, but one variable stood out: affluence. Those who did not perform as well tended to be from the poorer of the two neighbourhoods. Somehow their socio-economic status was showing up in the architecture of their thoughts.

The result was a particularly vivid example of something scientists who specialize in early childhood development have seen again and again. Kids from communities that are underresourced and subject to economic stress think differently than their wealthier counterparts in ways that can ultimately affect behaviour.

Five years later, Dr. Hertzman – who teaches at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health and was Canada’s health researcher of the year in 2010 – is part of a rapid evolution of the field that has grown from merely recording the demographics of cognitive disparities to building a bottom-up understanding of the molecular changes that cause them.

The change has gathered momentum in recent months, fuelled by a bounty of new findings that bolster the long-observed link between social environment and development with a newly emerging biological perspective.

It also underscores the stunning human cost of what is called the “socio-economic gradient.” Only 3 to 4 per cent of Canadian children are born with inherited differences that will limit their physical, emotional or intellectual growth, yet an average of 25 to 30 per cent exhibit some level of developmental vulnerability that could include a cognitive “deficit.”

Read more: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/brain/how-poverty-influences-a-childs-brain-development/article7882957/?page=all

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