Childhood Poverty: Long Term Impact on the Developing Brain

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Brain development is complex and varies from person to person. There are several factors that affect development and socioeconomic status may be one of them. Recently, U.S. researchers discovered that the brain areas responsible for language, learning, and emotional development were far more complex in children whose parents had a higher level of education and/or worked professional jobs compared to those with parents working manual labour jobs and/or having lower levels of education.

Based on hundreds of brain scans, The National Institute of Mental Health researchers found that the effects on brain development are stable from childhood to adolescence. This suggests that support in pre-school could be very helpful to children from low socioeconomic families. This support may help with an individual’s mental health, academic achievement, and overall reduce inequalities that may occur throughout their life.

Previous studies revealed connections between parental occupations and earnings with an increase in volume of the brain’s grey matter; a darker tissue in the brain that plays a role in seeing, hearing, speech, executive functions, memory, impulse control, and emotions.  However, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reviewed 1243 MRI scans from over 623 people between the ages of 5-25 and found that higher socioeconomic status in early childhood has a significant impact on the thalamus.

The thalamus is involved in transmission and processing of sensory information and the volume of the thalamus is closely correlated to verbal IQ and quick thinking. Therefore, the larger the volume, the more likely you may be a quick thinker and have a high verbal IQ. In this study, children from higher socioeconomic families were shown to have an areal expansion in the thalamic subregions.

There are many factors that play a role in early year development and although there appears to be a correlation between socioeconomic status and size/complexity of brain regions, the study does not prove that one causes the other. Correlation does not imply causation but this information allows us to have a better understanding of brain development in children.


Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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