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December 01, 2013

Nurturing Protects Kids from Brain Changes Linked to Poverty

Alanna Pawlowski

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows parental nurturing can help protect against harmful brain changes caused by poverty. The study used child subjects and measured the size of various parts of the brain, rather than measuring brain activity in adulthood. Among children living in poverty, the researchers identified changes in the brain that can lead to lifelong problems such as depression, learning difficulties and limitations in the ability to cope with stress. The study showed that the extent of those changes was influenced strongly by whether parents were nurturing. 

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that poor children with parents who were not very nurturing were likely to have less gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is closely linked to intelligence, while white matter often is linked to the brain’s ability to transmit signals between various cells and structures. The MRI scans also revealed that the amygdala, a key structure in emotional health, and the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical to learning and memory, were smaller in children who were living in poverty.

The study expanded on previous research linking childhood poverty and brain changes and further showed that those changes may be mitigated in children with nurturing parents. Given the protective function parental nurturing can have on brain development, the researchers say it is vital that society invest in public health prevention programs that target parental nurturing skills. Also, a key next step would be to determine if there are sensitive developmental periods when interventions with parents might have the most powerful impact.