This Is How Poverty Hurts a Baby's Brain Even Before Birth

Does being poor impact your brain, or are people with decreased cognitive ability poor?

Some people may have strong opinions on the above question. Probably broadly along political partisan lines. But the best place to answer this question is with research and science, and research is firmly showing that poverty disrupts healthy brain development.

The brain changes even before birth

First, let’s review some recent research just out which is really interesting because it scanned newborn babies’ brains while they were sleeping. This is really important because it showed that this life disadvantage is there right from day one. That is very worrying.

The researchers at Washington University School of Medicine analyzed a sample of 399 mothers and their babies. Of these, 280 were at a social disadvantage  —  scientific language for being poor. And these newborns showed significant differences in their brains from babies born to mothers in better social conditions. Specifically, the scans showed:

  • Less cortical gray matter  -  cortical gray matter is the outer layer of the brain considered our higher functional area of the brain (but involved in a lot including sensory processing). The gray matter is the area that houses your neurons and brain cells.
  • Less sub-cortical gray matter  –  subcortical gray matter refers to regions that sit in the internal regions of the brain which are often important for emotional functions but also memory and general functional processing. As I said, gray matter houses your neurons, brain cells
  • Less white matter  -  white matter refers to the mass of connections between brain regions. So, this suggests fewer connections between all brain regions or less efficient connections.
  • Fewer and shallower folds in the brain –the folds in the brain give it that wrinkly look and allow the brain to have more surface area but is also a sign of a mature or more functional brain.

Overall, this was quite a significant difference. Although the individual differences may not be large, they add up to point to a less developed, functional brain on all levels. And this was simply comparing the two groups of newborns shortly after birth. This means these babies are at a disadvantage right from the outset - even before anything other environmental influences can happen to these kids. They’re starting out with a deficit and more are likely to follow.

Exposure to crime also affects newborn brains

Another study using the same dataset asked the question about how crime impacted newborns’ brains.

For this study, researchers analyzed what neighborhoods the pregnant women lived in and their potential exposure to property or violent crime. The results are again very concerning, but also different. In the aforementioned study, the results seemed to impact the whole brain and not specific regions, but in this study, various specific functional networks were affected.

This Is How Poverty Hurts a Baby's Brain Even Before Birth

While a number of networks were negatively impacted, the most relevant was the thalamus-amygdala-hippocampus network. This is an important network that connects sensory information to emotional responses and memory functions. So, in short, the effect translates into disrupted emotional and memory networks.

Double the trouble: poverty and crime

The same effect was observed in the previously mentioned study also. In newborns with mothers living in higher-crime neighborhoods  —  just this was enough to see a significant difference in these newborn babies’ brains. So, the kids born in poverty AND with the mothers being exposed to crime during pregnancy seem to be starting life with doubled negative impact. Decreased brain maturity and disrupted emotional and memory networks can lead to mental health, behavior, and cognition problems throughout childhood and into adulthood.

It is also important to note that we haven’t even begun to speak about developmental factors and how these brains can and do go on to develop in socially deprived environments, nor have we talked about these children’s brains may differ further due to epigenetic changes, such as how stress can pass gene activation patterns to offspring.

Brain changes and epigenetics are proof also that breaking out of the cycle of poverty requires more than just proclaiming that people need to make good choices in life. Of course, people can reverse epigenetic changes and heal from childhood adverse experiences, but starting out with a brain that is already less developed with disrupted networks makes it much more difficult and is more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, crime, mental health, and poor behavior and mental health.

How to help a child’s brain development

Even starting with a deficit, there are many developmental factors that can contribute to the brain development of children in positive ways. In this article here I outline the ground-breaking research that showed that care for children could massively boost IQ.

The Abecedarian Project in the USA showed that pre-school education could leave beneficial traces in the brain that could be seen 50 years later. Similarly, breastfeeding has been shown to improve the brain health of children and mothers  —  and, again, this can be seen decades later in the brain. In addition, exercise and movement improve children’s brain structure. Exercise in pre-teen years can leave a signature on the brain observable many years later.

That is all good, but you will notice that all of these factors are also related to social standing and socioeconomic level. Pre-schooling, particularly high-quality schooling, is usually only available to people who can afford it or live in more affluent neighborhoods. The same is also true of high-quality, brain-boosting nutrition.

Breastfeeding may seem like a cheap option to help impoverished kids’ brain development. But it requires that the mother actually be available to breastfeed and have healthy nutrition herself. If a mother is living in poverty, trying to hold down two jobs to feed herself and her children, this may not be possible. That is often the case, unfortunately.

Taking part in structured sporting activities can also benefit a child’s brain development. Fortunately, with after-school and inner-city programs, this may be a possible intervention for many children — even impoverished ones.

We all benefit from a society with better brains

If we want a world where children have an equal chance to flourish, we need to pay attention the what these studies tell us.

A large part of the development of children’s brains happens before they are born. Interventions that help pregnant mothers, particularly those living in poverty, will significantly benefit the brains of their unborn children. Similarly, investing in quality preschool interventions can also help.

The important message here is that poverty negatively impacts the brain at all ages. The influence of poverty on the brain can be seen throughout life. Most importantly, according to new science, poverty can negatively alter the brain right from the start  —  before birth even.

These findings raise the importance of investing in programs supporting pregnant mothers. Regardless of political opinions, we all benefit when babies are born healthier.

After all who doesn’t want a society with better brains. I know I do.

Guest Author

Andy HabermacherAndy Habermacher

Andy is the author of the leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behavior. Andy is also a master’s athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.7045

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The Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Neighborhood Crime on Neonatal Functional Connectivity. 
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DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2022.01.020

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  1. Elle Sommer Reply

    Wow – fascinating article Debbie and Andy. It’s so sad that babies are impacted by societal conditions and I absolutely agree poverty benefits no one.

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