Stress, Poverty, Working Memory

A new study has demonstrated, once again, that being poor is stressful, and that chronic stress is poison for the brain. Here's the paper:

The income-achievement gap is a formidable societal problem, but little is known about either neurocognitive or biological mechanisms that might account for income-related deficits in academic achievement. We show that childhood poverty is inversely related to working memory in young adults. Furthermore, this prospective relationship is mediated by elevated chronic stress during childhood.

The scientists measured stress by looking at the "allostatic load" of the subjects when age 9 and 13, which is based on variables like blood pressure and levels of stress hormone, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. When the children were 17, they were given a simple test that measures working memory, which in this case meant temporarily remembering a sequence of random digits. (Working memory is strongly correlated with g.) The scientists uncovered a statistically significant link: the longer children had been poor, the worse their working memory. Furthermore, levels of chronic stress seemed to be the causal factor.

This paper builds on a large body of research linking stress during bran development to a wide variety of brain deficits, from reduced neurogenesis to problems with attention. Elizabeth Gould, who I've written about before, has done some quite powerful work on the subject:

Subsequent experiments [by Gould] have teased out a host of other ways stress can damage the developing brain. For example, if a pregnant rhesus monkey is forced to endure stressful conditions--like being startled by a blaring horn for 10 minutes a day--her children are born with reduced neurogenesis, even if they never actually experience stress once born. This pre-natal trauma, just like trauma endured in infancy, has life-long implications. The offspring of monkeys stressed during pregnancy have smaller hippocampi, suffer from elevated levels of glucocorticoids and display all the classical symptoms of anxiety. Being low in a dominance hierarchy also suppresses neurogenesis. So does living in a bare environment. As a general rule of thumb, a rough life--especially a rough start to life--strongly correlates with lower levels of fresh cells.

"Poverty is stress," Gould says, with more than a little passion in her voice. "One thing that always strikes me is that when you ask Americans why the poor are poor, they always say it's because they don't work hard enough, or don't want to do better. They act like poverty is a character issue."

Gould's work implies that the symptoms of poverty are not simply states of mind; they actually warp the mind. Because neurons are designed to reflect their circumstances, not to rise above them, the monotonous stress of living in a slum literally limits the brain.

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I agree. I think that this has such big implications for politics and for early intervention. Unless these issues are addressed in childhood we will have a perpetual cycle of underachievement and problems for a whole section of society. It makes me so annoyed that so little is done given what we know. The politicians really need to start thinking long term about how to change some of this- it is preventable. Address the problems for children and the long term rewards for society are massive. Thanks for highlighting this work.

I was thinking this morning that if the rich want to complain about things like "taxing success" when talking about taxing higher income brackets then they should have no trouble making sure that we're all equal at the starting line right? That kids should all have access to the same nurturing environment and education?

This might not be the place for this but it's been on my mind all day!

Which is more stressful - to be born into poverty and remain there or to be born into affluence and experience severe vacillations in family fortune during childhood and adolescence? Is it better for the brain to become more successful than one's birth family or to be a moderately successful child of highly successful parents?

Which is more stressful - to be born into poverty and remain there or to be born into affluence and experience severe vacillations in family fortune during childhood and adolescence?

Clearly, the former, since pre-natal influences are so strong. Poverty is never OK as the norm - just because you're used to it doesn't mean it's not stressful. Severe vacillations are stressful, but the up times are less so. See also Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature for more detail.

Is it better for the brain to become more successful than one's birth family or to be a moderately successful child of highly successful parents?

That depends on your birth parents. ;) More successful than one's birth parents, up to a point. If your birth parents are already high on the socioeconomic/IQ spectrum, then you could theoretically be a Very High IQ, and that's inherently abnormal, and hence stressful.

Am I the only one who's sickened by Gould's display of emotion about the plight of the poor? This from someone who is blaring a horn at pregnant monkeys every day in an effort to learn about the effects of poverty on brain development, torturing animals in an experiment that has at the most a very tenuous relationship to the stress of human poverty. This is science?

It's appalling to me that intelligent people read papers like this and talk about them 1) as if their conclusions actually tell us something meaningful, and 2) without any comment at all on the ethics of treating animals this way.

http://golikewater.blogspot.com/2009/04/science.html

Several other researchers were similarly cited in a Financial Times article last year.

Clive Cookson, "Poverty mars formation of infant brains," Financial Times, February 16, 2008, Pg. 5:

Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston yesterday heard.

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.

Jonathan, the elephant in the room, which everyone ignores, is that the people who hold power view the way stress and poverty stunts the brain as a desirable way to keep the lower classes in check.

There are many people with power who look at articles like this and think "that is a brilliant way to keep people down." It would be great for almost everyone if we fixed these problems. But there are lots of people with power who intentionally create these problems because a crippled lower class is easier to manipulate and control. As an exercise, think about how you would react to this article if you wanted to keep the lower classes from gaining power. That's how many of the people in power think.

By Spencer Nobleman (not verified) on 07 Apr 2009 #permalink

Although I concur with this premise and research, I do wonder a great deal about the environmental factors and perceptions learned from parents/family. For example, many children have NO IDEA they are poor or that thier families are "poor" if every family they know has about what they have. Possibly resources should not just be spent on nutrition and early education programs for children, but a great deal more emphasis put on helping parents manage stress and be encouraging/helpful parents.

I evidence much of my travel experience in countires where there is a great deal of wide spread poverty- yet so many of the people seem happy, even joyful a good part of the time. Its often shocking to americans how people can be so poor but so happy. Possibly finding peace and acceptance within ourselves, rather than through the media and this ridiculous media/advertising spawned definitions of beauty and success would be a better direction. I am sure it sounds so "unamerican".

By imaskeptical1 (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

folks from deprived, stressful environments during their first nine months of life thrive, too.

By ho chi minh (not verified) on 10 Feb 2010 #permalink

People in other countries in 'material' poverty, often are rich in other resources...such as family closeness, connection... all of which increase a sense of wellbeing, not feeling alone and increase serotonin in our bodies. they also often get plenty of exercise (walking, running, no car, etc). They are happier too if they haven't been exposed to a great deal of material things and therefore aren't lusting after them. In America, it seems the economic model is based upon people wanting and buying things...so the unhappiness of wanting more, spending life going after more, gaining it or not, still wanting more...perhaps can be very stressful. If poor, its even worse...inner city life maybe harder. Can we build FAMILY & COMMUNITY again? Inter-dependent communities rather than independent individuals?

Things seems to be going downhill due to a loss of 'family ' and extended community. Parents are worn out beyond belief trying to do it all alone. Working away from home moms if poor are overly stressed and it affects the kids. Yet have no respite. I'm sure someone has been researching all this.

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