How socioeconomic status negatively impacts children's brains

A new study shows how poor children are negatively impacted neurologically.

park swings
Credit: alexfan32 / Shutterstock
  • Children in poor neighborhoods exhibit abnormal activation of motivational circuits in their brains.
  • The neurological impact increases the likelihood of criminal behavior and substance abuse later in life.
  • Researchers suggest focusing on shaping the environment to set up the child for success.

A 1973 experiment produced interesting data about noise and education—and, by extension, socioeconomic status. The Bridge apartment complex sits directly over Interstate 95 in Manhattan. Researchers noticed the echo chamber effect generated by highway noise negatively impacted children's ability to read. Children living on lower floors experienced serious problems due to their inability to concentrate. On higher floors, which were both more expensive and subject to less ambient noise, children didn't have the same difficulties.

The longstanding myth that every American has the same opportunities needs to be abandoned. Black, LatinX, and Native American communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have less access to health care and public services. This is true of anyone in these economic categories, but these categories tend to include the aforementioned communities.

A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, adds to the growing literature of socioeconomic trauma. Researchers from The University of Mexico found that children in poor neighborhoods exhibit abnormal activation of motivational circuits in their brain, putting them at greater risk for mental health and social problems.

The focus of this study was the brain's reward system. A link between reward and motivation is well established. For example, getting into flow states requires immediate feedback and achievable tasks. The reward—a psychological state in which time dissolves—results with regular training. The takeaway: an achievable reward awaits your effort.

Rewards are thin or nonexistent for children in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Forget flow; mere survival is in question. The team scanned the brains of 6,396 children (ages 9-10) while they completed an anticipation task that required them to either quickly win or refrain from losing a reward.

The results show that children from poorer zip codes (household income of less than $35,000 or in the $35,000-$50,000 range) suffered greater internalizing and externalizing psychological problems than children from wealthier (six-figure) neighborhoods. The internalizing-problems domain includes anxious-depressed symptoms, withdrawn-depressed symptoms, and somatic complaints (such as stomachaches), while the externalizing-problems domain includes attentional difficulties, aggression, and rule-breaking behaviors.

The team discovered decreased activation of the ventral and dorsal striatum, as well as the pallidum—motivational circuitry. Disadvantaged children were unable to anticipate rewards in the same manner as children from wealthier neighborhoods, and therefore unlikely to put in the same effort.

The team writes that this data suggest an increased likelihood of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, along with impaired reward-motivated behavior—factors that increase the likelihood of criminal behavior and substance abuse later in life.

In sum, the team suggests changing the environment, not seeking out self-help coaches.

"This suggests that interventions to reduce externalizing in children from deprived neighborhoods would do well to focus on shaping the environment to set up the child for success, rather than providing, for example, verbal instruction to change goal-directed behavior."

Mental health is rarely an individual matter. Your environment plays a far greater role in health than your genes. We've long denied this reality as a culture, pretending the "bootstraps" mentality applies equally to everyone. Decades of data show that to be false. Until we provide environments that allow all children an opportunity to thrive, studies like this will continue to highlight the dangers of economic and racial inequality on public health.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
Keep reading Show less

Decades of data suggest parenthood makes people unhappy

Decades of studies have shown parents to be less happy than their childless peers. But are the kids to blame?

(Photo by Alex Hockett / Unsplash)
Sex & Relationships
  • Folk knowledge assumes having children is the key to living a happy, meaningful life; however, empirical evidence suggests nonparents are the more cheery bunch.
  • The difference is most pronounced in countries like the United States. In countries that support pro-family policies, parents can be just as happy as their child-free peers.
  • These findings suggest that we can't rely on folk knowledge to make decisions about parenting, on either the individual or societal levels.
Keep reading Show less

Lonely? Hungry? The same part of the brain worries about both

MRI scans show that hunger and loneliness cause cravings in the same area, which suggests socialization is a need.

Credit: Dương Nhân from Pexels
Mind & Brain
  • A new study demonstrates that our brains crave social interaction with the same areas used to crave food.
  • Hungry test subjects also reported a lack of desire to socialize, proving the existence of "hanger."
  • Other studies have suggested that failure to socialize can lead to stress eating in rodents.
Keep reading Show less

A Chinese plant has evolved to hide from humans

Researchers document the first example of evolutionary changes in a plant in response to humans.

Credit: MEDIAIMAG/Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • A plant coveted in China for its medicinal properties has developed camouflage that makes it less likely to be spotted and pulled up from the ground.
  • In areas where the plant isn't often picked, it's bright green. In harvested areas, it's now a gray that blends into its rocky surroundings.
  • Herbalists in China have been picking the Fritillaria dealvayi plant for 2,000 years.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…