Dramatic headlines pointing toward brain structures that control emotion, intelligence, or memory get a lot of attention, but there’s an important neuroscience fact that doesn’t often make it into the headlines. The brain can change in response to the environment, and changes in the brain can affect how people relate to the world, not to mention how the world relates to them. A study published in Nature Neuroscience has found a correlation between children’s brains and socioeconomic background, suggesting that the resources higher-income children can access may steadily change their brains.
Does Parental Income Change Kids’ Brains?
To test how socioeconomic status might affect brain structure, researchers recruited 1,099 people ranging in age from 3 to 20. The participants were part of the Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition, and Genetics (PING) study, a large study funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Researchers gathered information about parental education and income levels. The study’s authors also gathered data about each child’s developmental history using questionnaires. Each child underwent a high-resolution MRI exam to evaluate the surface area of the brain. Even after controlling for age, education, and genetic history, researchers found that parental income positively correlated with brain surface area. In other words, bigger family incomes predicted bigger brains. The educational attainments of parents mattered much less than income.
Among children from low-income families, relatively modest differences in income resulted in significant differences in brain surface area. The study’s authors don’t believe that family income directly caused the differences. Instead, income opens up new doors and new opportunities that can change brain structure. For instance, a parent with a higher income may be able to buy more books, hire a highly educated nanny, and enroll his or her child in challenging extracurricular activities that improve brain function.
Are Income-Related Brain Changes Permanent?
The brain is a dynamic organ that’s constantly adjusting according to environmental inputs. During the early years of childhood, the brain changes and grows rapidly, but this doesn’t mean that the changes a parent’s income can cause are immutable. A wide variety of environmental inputs play a role, including education, friends, and even how frequently a parent talks to his or her child. The takeaway here is that, while parental income may affect the way kids’ brains work, it’s not the only—or even the most important—factor.
Family income, parental education related to brain structure in children, adolescents. (2015, March 30). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150330112232.htm
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