National Edition

Researchers find being poor can hurt your brain

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 4:40 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 2 2014 2:28 p.m. MDT

Isabel Morales Bachiller cries after her and her family wait to be evicted by the police in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Isabel Morales Bachiller, aged 35 and 2 month pregnant, her husband Amalio Barrul Gimenez, 41 and three children live with a low income coming from selling goods in the street and state benefits of 530 euros ($720). They occupied Bankia Bank apartment one and a half year ago and have tried to negotiate to pay a low rent but the bank demanded their eviction. The eviction was carried out in spite of the Victims' Mortgage Platform.

Andres Kudacki, Associated Press

Jessica Sweeney took a ballet class once when she was a child.

When it came time for the class recital, she panicked when she was told she had to come up with $20 for a costume. Somehow her family came up with the money, but that was the last extracurricular class she took.

"When I observe children, including my own, from lower-income households, it's as if I can see into them, witness their talents sitting dormant, churning, just waiting for a chance," says Sweeney.

Fewer opportunities for stimulation and growth are just one of the many unseen effects of growing up in poverty, and mounting evidence shows that the strain of constant poverty can impair judgment and even change the brain itself. A recent Harvard study showed that experiencing poverty can create the equivalent effect of pulling an all-nighter every night.

"There is a heavy emotional and psychological component to poverty," says Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist who worked with low-income families in Los Angeles for 15 years. "Even if you're born gifted, poverty interferes with the functionality of a high IQ, and that can affect the course of your life."

Your brain on poverty

Bernadette McDaid directs a popular Science Channel show called "Through the Wormhole" hosted by Morgan Freeman, which explores tricky scientific questions. This season's premiere episode, "Is Poverty Genetic?", was personal for Freeman and McDaid, she says, because they both grew up in humble circumstances.

"When I was young, 6 or 7, I remember an adult said to me, 'That's your lot and that's what you've got to deal with.' I thought to myself, 'That doesn't have to be my lot,'" says McDaid, who grew up in a poor town in Ireland.

McDaid and Freeman both improved their circumstances — in the "Wormhole" episode Freeman notes that he didn't know anyone rich when he was growing up, but he's "in the movies now, and money isn't a problem" — and may have become exceptions to the conclusions drawn by the researchers, but many others still experience long-lasting effects from the stress of poverty.

Research shows that the brains of poor people start out the same as everyone else's, but then they can develop more slowly over early childhood because of the strain of poverty. This can be seen in the Science Channel episode, which features Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania, who has scanned the brain activity of hundreds of kids, both rich and poor.

Her team found that extreme poverty slowed development of the hippocampus, which helps with memory, learning and stress regulation, and the prefrontal cortex, which coordinates memory and motor control.

"Wealthy kids tend to get more stimulation," says Farah. "They get read to more, talked to more, get to visit interesting places — we know that promotes cognitive brain development."

Walfish points out that poverty takes an emotional toll as well as an intellectual one. About 31 percent of Americans in poverty say they have been diagnosed with depression, twice the ratio of those not in poverty, according to a Gallup poll.

"If you're depressed, and you are having a hard time functioning, that's going to impact whether a person is able to do their best," Walfish says. "We all have to find a way to spring back from rejection," she says, and impoverished people have more obstacles than most. "Life requires resilience."

Nature vs. nurture

Stimulation and attention promote the intellectual and emotional health of young brains, and research supports early-childhood education programs like Head Start or the plan for free universal preschool in New York City by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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