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."

How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

Credit: Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
  • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
  • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
Surprising Science
  • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
  • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
  • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Keep reading Show less

World's oldest work of art found in a hidden Indonesian valley

Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.

Pig painting at Leang Tedongnge in Indonesia, made at 45,500 years ago.

Credit: Maxime Aubert
Surprising Science
  • Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
  • The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
  • The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Keep reading Show less

What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?

The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
Philosophers of the Islamic world enjoyed thought experiments.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

The incredible physics behind quantum computing

Can computers do calculations in multiple universes? Scientists are working on it. Step into the world of quantum computing.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast