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Trending science: Socioeconomic status correlated with brain surface area in children

The results of a new study suggest that there is a correlation between parental education and poverty and the development of a child’s brain.

The study, led by researchers at Columbia University and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in the US, investigated relationships between socioeconomic factors and brain morphometry in over 1 000 children and young people aged between three and 20 years of age. The team found that income was logarithmically associated with brain surface area. The study, published recently in Nature Neuroscience, also suggests that income relates most strongly to brain structure among the most disadvantaged children. According to the Abstract, among children from lower income families, small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in surface area, whereas, among children from higher income families, similar income increments were associated with smaller differences in surface area. These relationships were most prominent in regions supporting language, reading, executive functions and spatial skills; surface area mediated socioeconomic differences in certain neurocognitive abilities. Science magazine quotes study leaders Kimberly Noble and Elizabeth Sowell who said that the difference between lower and higher incomes is dramatic: Children from families making $25 000 (approximately EUR 23 200) per year or less have cortical surface areas roughly 6 % smaller than those making more than $150 000 (approximately EUR 139 200). Science also reports that parental education showed a linear correlation with overall cortical surface area. It notes: ‘As a rough approximation, the children of parents with only a high school education (12 years of education or less) had 3 % less cortical surface area than children whose parents had attended universities (15 years or more).’ Race and ethnicity had no effect on any of the correlations, as Noble told Science: ‘The links between socioeconomic status and brain structure were the same across individuals, regardless of racial background.’ It’s important to note that the reasons for the correlations are not yet clear to the researchers. Science adds: ‘Low socioeconomic status could inhibit brain growth due to family stress, greater exposure to environmental toxins, or insufficient nutrition, while higher status families might be able to provide more “cognitive stimulation” to their children.’ The researchers are also keen to ensure that the results are not twisted to reinforce negative stereotypes. Sowell noted to the Guardian, ‘The message is not “if you are poor, your brain will be smaller, and there is nothing that can be done about it”. That is absolutely not the message. Improving access to resources that enrich the developmental environment could potentially change the trajectories of brain development for the better, even in children and adolescents in the age range we studied.’ For further information, please visit: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3983.html

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