The neuroscience of inequality: does poverty show up in children's brains?


MRI brain scans of babies aged seven to nine months. Image: The Developing Human Connectome Project.

The Guardian, Thursday 13 July 2017, written by Mike Mariani

There is increasing evidence that growing up poor diminishes the physical development of a child’s brain. A landmark US study is attempting to establish a causal link – and unlock new ways to help our poorest children.

With its bright colours, anthropomorphic animal motif and nautical-themed puzzle play mat, Dr Kimberly Noble’s laboratory at Columbia University in New York looks like your typical day-care centre – save for the team of cognitive neuroscientists observing kids from behind a large two-way mirror.

The Neurocognition, Early Experience and Development Lab is home to cutting-edge research on how poverty affects young brains, and I’ve come here to learn how Noble and her colleagues could soon definitively prove that growing up poor can keep a child’s brain from developing.

Household income plays crucial role in determining a child's prospects – report


Noble, a 40-year-old from outside of Philadelphia who discusses her work with a mix of enthusiasm and clinical restraint, is among the handful of neuroscientists and pediatricians who’ve seen increasing evidence that poverty itself – and not factors like nutrition, language exposure, family stability, or prenatal issues, as previously thought – may diminish the growth of a child’s brain. Now she’s in the middle of planning a five-year, nationwide study that could establish a causal link between poverty and brain development – and, in the process, suggest a path forward for helping our poorest children.


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