Impact of poverty on the developing brain

Recent studies show that the brains of poor children are impacted by poverty. An historical example of this claim, given by Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher from Stanford, demonstrates this dramatically. For many years, children’s thymus glands were radiated to prevent SIDS (eventually causing thyroid cancer in thousands of adults). Physicians believed that the normal thymus in children should be small, which is what they saw in the children they dissected because the only bodies autopsied at the time were that of poor people,. In fact, the gland was small due to the stresses of poverty. The thymus gland in children normal children large and grows smaller with age.

In another study, Sapolsky wrote about the impact of stress upon the brains of poor children. The brains of poor children are atrophied. But was this because poverty causes small brains or people who are poor start out with smaller brains? Sapolksy thought the former, though conceded that his conclusions were tentative, as correlation doesn’t prove causation.

But the mounting evidence is that the relationship between atrophied brains and stress is more than a correlation—it is causal. As a study at Boston Children’s Hospital concludes, severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains.Unfortunately, stress and poverty go hand-in-hand. More important than unhealthy lifestyles and lack of access to good healthcare, chronic stress makes many susceptible to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes. The impact upon the brain is seen with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: the hippocampus part of their brains is atrophied.