A new study by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has found that children raised in poor families are more likely to experience changes in brain connectivity and that put them at higher risk of depression, compared with children from richer families.
This is the second study for the same group of investigators and in the previous research, they had identified differences in the volume of gray and white matter, and the size and volume of the hippocampus and amygdala. “Our past research has shown that the brain’s anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty,” said first author Deanna M. Barch, PhD, chair of Washington University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences, and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.
The goal of the latest study was to investigate whether childhood poverty may also lead to brain changes that influence the risk of depression, given that children grow up in poor tend to be at higher risk of psychiatric illness and have worse cognitive and educational outcomes.
To reach their findings, the researchers enrolled 105 preschool children aged 3-5 and they calculated the poverty level using an income-to-needs ratio that takes into account a family’s size and annual income. Between the ages 7-12, the children underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allowed the researchers to analyze the brain connections in the hippocampus- a structure key to learning, memory and regulation of stress- and the amygdala- which is linked to stress and emotion.
Analyzing brain scans for 105 children, the researchers found that compared with preschoolers from higher-income families, those from lower-income families demonstrated weaker connections between the left hippocampus and the right superior frontal cortex, as well as a weaker connection between the right amygdala and the right lingual gyrus.
Moreover, this study that is published in The American Journal of Psychiatry shows that poorer preschoolers were much more likely to have symptoms of clinical depression when they reached school age. Those changes in connectivity among poor preschool children were associated with greater risk of clinical depression at the age of 9 or 10.
But Barch stresses that the link between poverty and poor outcomes doesn’t necessarily lock a child into a difficult life. “Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain. And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories”,.Barch said.