Childhood Poverty May Change Brain, Raise Depression Risk

Child looking out a windowChildren raised in poverty may experience brain connectivity changes that elevate their risk of depression, according to a brain imaging study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 22% of American children (16 million) live in families with income levels below the federal poverty line of $24,250 per year. Most research suggests families need about double this income to meet their basic needs, and 45% of children live below this threshold.

How Poverty Can Change Children’s Brains

Researchers recruited 105 preschool children ages 3 to 5. To calculate a family’s poverty status, they used an income-to-needs ratio that accounted for family size and income. They gave the children behavioral assessments every year for up to 12 years.

Researchers also administered functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans when the children were between ages 7 and 12. This enabled them to analyze brain activity and connections in the amygdala, which is thought to play a role in the regulation of stress and emotion, and the hippocampus, which research suggests aids in memory, learning, and stress management.

right lingual gyrus, as well as between the left hippocampus and right superior frontal cortex. The weaker connections directly correlated with the extent of a child’s poverty; on average, poorer children had weaker connections in these regions.

The researchers found these weaker connections directly affected children’s emotions and behavior. By age 9 or 10, poor children had a significantly greater risk of depression than their more affluent peers.

Can Children Overcome the Brain Effects Linked to Poverty?

Previous research by the same team suggested improvements in a child’s home environment could help reduce some of the brain effects of poverty. The latest study found no such improvements. While this may suggest reducing childhood poverty could mitigate depression risk, researchers caution that it does not necessarily mean poverty directly causes depression in children. The right early interventions, they say, could still make a significant difference.


  1. Barch, D., Pagliaccio, D., Belden, A., Harms, M. P., Gaffrey, M., Sylvester, C. . . . Luby, J. (2016). Effect of hippocampal and amygdala connectivity on the relationship between preschool poverty and school-age depression. American Journal of Psychiatry. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15081014
  2. Child poverty. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Whiteman, H. (2016, January 19). Childhood poverty linked to brain changes related to depression. Retrieved from

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  • Jeremiah

    January 20th, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    Could be living in poverty but I also think that it has to be broken down a little further than that. You know that usually kids living in an impoverished home are not generally going to have the kind of adult interaction that they need to thrive. This is because parents are usually working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, or they do not have the education themselves to give their kids what they will then need to to thrive as well. It can be a cruel and punishing cycle.

  • Norma

    January 20th, 2016 at 2:33 PM

    Childhood poverty should be made public enemy #!

  • Raye

    January 21st, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    I always find it so curious how something like this could actually change your genetic makeup.

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