Stress can affect developing brains, including the kind of stress that poverty can create. But a strong caregiver can mediate those effects. Those are the findings of a new study in the Journal JAMA Pediatrics. It's not news that stress and poverty can have negative effects. What's new is the kind of evidence for those effects, which in this case is actual changes in brain volume as seen on a series of MRI brain images, and how a supportive caregiver in a child's life can reduce those negative impacts.
You can listen to a brief interview with the study's lead author, Dr. Joan Luby, a psychiatrist with Washington University School of Medicine and Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, who wrote the comment on this study, if you click on the word "study" above - the interview is on the right side of the page. Nelson is known for his work on Romanian orphans and the effects of so much deprivation on their development. I heard him discuss some of his findings at last spring's Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Boston, and it was fascinating. The main point I remember from his talk is the role of genetics in saving some of these orphans from a horrible life - basically, some are more resilient than others, and resilience can help protect the young brain to a certain extent.
Their work adds to this growing understanding of poverty and the young brain. Listen to this excellent This American Life episode on how those factors very specifically affect a kid's ability to learn and thrive in school. Here's what Ira Glass said about the effect of repeated stress on children's brains:
"When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids' brains. And especially affected in this situation is a specific part of the brain that's called the prefrontal cortex, which is where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen-- self-control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions.
If you're in a constant state of emergency, that part of your brain just doesn't develop the same. Doctors can see the differences on brain scans."
In Rhode Island, according to Rhode Island Kids Count 2013 Factbook, nearly 22% of Rhode Island's kids live in poverty. And our kids are the poorest in New England.