Since 2005, Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University has been carrying out extensive research into the causal link between individuals who live in lower socio-economic backgrounds and the effect on their brain development. Frankly, the results are astonishing. In 2015, Noble co-authored the largest study to date, performing MRI examinations on a group of 1,099 children from low and high-income families to find that children from poorer families were more likely to have thinner subregions in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain – meaning a lesser capacity for executive functioning.
For a long time, it has been a widely discussed topic in neuroscience and society at large that various socioeconomic factors affect a child’s development, for instance, lower exposure to the language, family situation, but this is the first time that research has exposed the direct link to the effects of poverty itself. This ‘neurocognitive profile’ of socioeconomic status and the neurological development could have far-reaching implications for the approach to dealing with inequality of wealth and so-called ‘income-enhancing’ policies in the United States and perhaps areas worldwide.
The 2015 study co-authored by Dr Noble also suggested that even a small increase in wealth for those children below the poverty line, i.e. with an overall annual income of less than $25,000 for a family of 4, would have a much larger impact on those children than the same increment would have on a child from a middle-class family. This finding is particularly significant considering the fact that children below the poverty line to have up to 6% less brain surface area than their classmates from families with an income of $150,000 or more.
This research has since been upheld by a similar study conducted by child psychologist Seth Pollak, who found an undeniable link between the level of wealth and the volume of grey matter in key regions of the brain including the frontal lobe, temporal lobe and hippocampus, with children below the poverty line found to have 8-10% less.
Noble and her team are now carrying out a control experiment involving 1,000 low-income families for the first 3 years of the child’s life. At the moment in the US there is a total of 15 million children living below the federal poverty line, meaning more than 1 in 5, so Noble’s research is essential to improving the chances of many future generations. Regardless of the fact that the current government is not in support of increased scientific funding, one of the researchers Martha Farah assures that, “this work is going forward without much in the way of focused federal funding.”