Poverty Changes The Brain

Poor people are exposed to the lack of different resources: educational, nutritional, recreational … All this represents an obstacle to brain development, acting as a brake on cognitive efficiency.
Poverty changes the brain

Over the past 50 years, much of the brain research has focused on studying the effects of an enriched environment. In this sense, it has been found that greater social and intellectual stimulation produces structural and functional changes in the brain. But, then, does poverty also  change the brain?

Investigations have recently begun in this direction as well. In this way, it has been observed that poverty, or lack of resources, is precisely capable of modifying the brain.

The first studies in this regard have focused on detecting how socio-economic differences are reflected in behavior and cognition. Other studies have focused on locating different brain networks, functions and structures according to socioeconomic levels. Despite this, it is still unclear how exactly these differences manifest themselves.

However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that poverty changes the brain and some mechanisms have been hypothesized to be involved.

The effect of poverty on the developing brain

These findings were found mainly in the infant population, as the developing brain is more sensitive to external factors.

Brain development is driven by environmental as well as genetic factors. For this reason, the socio-economic level may have some influence at this stage.

In fact, it has been found that the burden of genetics on the development of the brain structure and cognition of the brain is greater in people with a high socioeconomic status. In people of lower socioeconomic level, therefore, environmental characteristics may play a greater role.

The results

Language is one of the skills most linked to the socio-economic level in childhood. The research showed that children belonging to lower socioeconomic levels show less specialization of the brain areas involved in language, as well as a relationship between poverty and the volume of the same.

As for memory, the poorest children have a small hippocampus. Furthermore, this effect is maintained for 5 decades, regardless of socio-economic conditions in adulthood.

The amygdala, on the other hand, is a brain structure linked to the processing of emotions, learning and motivation. In children subjected to extreme poverty it has small dimensions and its activation is altered, which results in a worse emotional regulation.

Even in executive functions (more complex cognitive mechanisms such as decision making or planning), the lack of stimuli and resources produces alterations and deficits. As with previous processes, lower socioeconomic levels are linked to poorer executive performance and lower volume of brain areas involved.

Poverty changes the brain: effects in adults

Most of the effects of poverty found in adults are due to the low socioeconomic status experienced in childhood. However, some effects independent of this phase may also be found.

For example, an interesting study published in Science found that “mere” economic concern affects cognitive performance, and in particular executive functions.

For this research two groups were created divided according to a single criterion: the difficulty in carrying out arithmetic operations. In the next step, the subjects of each group were exposed to a situation of greater and lesser economic concern.

In the case of the easier situation, both groups achieved similar results. In the most difficult situation, however, the people most concerned about lack of money performed worse. In other words, they demonstrated a lower ability to inhibit inappropriate responses, to select the corresponding ones and to retain relevant information.

Worried man


Although the underlying mechanisms by which poverty modifies the brain are not known precisely, there are many possible candidates on the list. These factors would act jointly, adding the effect of each one in negative.

  • Lack of resources. Limitation of resources, such as books, toys, or educational opportunities, undoubtedly affects the quantity and quality of stimulation received
  • Nutrition. Particularly in the neurodevelopmental phase, nutrients play a vital role in the brain. In this sense, the deficiency of vitamin B12, omega-3, zinc or iron is involved in the development of the brain by modulating its plasticity, genetic expression and regulating the production and quality of neural networks.
  • Stress. Both children and adults in poverty suffer from the effects of stress. Exposure to impoverished environments is linked to the increase in cortisol production, which has devastating effects when it continues over time.
  • Environmental toxicity. People of lower socioeconomic status generally live in areas more exposed to environmental toxicity. For example, the suburbs, located near the factories and, therefore, more exposed to pollution.

In some ways, the fight against poverty is not just a question of health. As we have seen, this variable can represent an obstacle to cognitive functioning as it causes a context of particular circumstances.

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