Poverty and the Brain: A Glimmer of Hope

January 10, 2017

CHW LogoMichel de Montaigne said “Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of the mind is irreparable.”  As it turns out, he was both too optimistic and too pessimistic at the same time.  On the one hand, despite the efforts of both liberal and conservative governments over the past 50 years, the poverty rate is essentially unchanged.  So much for the easy cure.

I have written before of the effects of poverty on the developing brainA new study suggests that a relatively simple intervention may sharply ameliorate those effects.  The Strong African American Families Program, started at the University of Georgia, offers parenting skills-building to rural African-American families, in a 7-week series of two-hour sessions.  Researchers conducted a randomized trial of this program versus a control program.  Youth who were enrolled in the program at ages 11-13 were followed up at age 25 with brain MRI.  Among control youth, there was a strong negative correlation between the number of years of living in poverty between the ages of 11 and 18 (a time of rapid brain development) and the size of key areas of the brain related to emotions and short-term memory.  The longer the exposure to poverty, the smaller the hippocampus and amygdala.  But among youth enrolled in the program, poverty had no such effect!  14 hours of training in supportive parenting appears to have essentially wiped out the harmful effects of deprivation on brain development.

This study doesn’t address the question about whether these changes are in turn associated with cognitive, emotional, or behavioral problems, and more importantly whether the intervention can prevent such problems.  But it provides tantalizing evidence that, if we don’t have the societal wherewithal to deal with poverty and disparities, we may at least be able to repair some of the damage.


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