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Neuroscience explains the impact of poverty on early brain development


Progress in neurological research is shedding a different light on the effects of poverty on early development, and raising critically important questions ranging from education and health to social welfare and juvenile justice.

Social scientists have been investigating links between family poverty and subsequent child outcomes for decades. Technological progress over the last decades has afforded social and neuroscientists a better understanding of the impact that a child’s socioeconomic status pdfcan have on the early development of cognitive capabilities, similarly to the impact of inadequate nutrition. The importance of this connection carries implication for policies aiming at reducing poverty and social exclusion of children in the US and Europe, but also carried out by international organizations such as the OECDpdf.


mother and child

The first three years of life are crucial to the development of future skills

The first years of life of a child involve rapid growth and development of the brain.  At birth the brain weighs about 400 grams and has 100 billion neurons, but by the age of 2, at 1100 grams, it is already about 80% the size of an adult brain. At some early stages of development, the brain is adding up to a half-million neurons per minute, and by age 3, it in will have 1000 trillion neuron connections. This period of rapid change in the brain occurs when the neurological foundations for later social, linguistic and emotional capabilities develop.

Research is also creating new insights into the possible damage caused by poverty.  Neuroscientists describe how conditions associated with poverty—including a lack of nurturing and high levels of stress, also impacting upon the relationship with parents living in poverty—can set off a cascade of neural and hormonal responses that disrupt brain development and have negative impacts on language, learning, and attention.

Poverty early in a child’s life may be particularly harmful because this astonishingly rapid development of young children’s brains leaves them sensitive (and vulnerable) to environmental conditions. Studies in neuroscience have explored how cognitive and other competencies - such as the ability to handle stress - are interdependent. As they all originate in early childhood, adverse environmental conditions can have a negative impact across all of these fundamental competencies. Therefore, a stimulating environment and a sense of security in early childhood can be critically important for healthy brain development, and through brain development, the quality of skills and life prospects of the individual, as found by a University of California Berkeley study.

Poverty in early childhood poses complex policy challenges

“Where a child grows up in impoverished conditions... with limited cognitive stimulation, high levels of stress, and so forth, that person is more likely to grow up with compromised physical and mental health and lowered academic achievement” says Martha Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

Data from Eurostat and Unicef indicates that 13 million children in the European Union (plus Norway and Iceland) lack basic items necessary for their development. This could have serious future impacts on the competence of the European labour force. One of the principal priorities of the Europe2020 strategy is therefore to eradicate child poverty.  At the same time, neuroscientific considerations continue to be only marginally present in policymaking, which focuses above all on the years following pre-school enrolment around age 4, too late to prevent early brain development, according to a Council report pdfon child poverty.

According to researchers, integrating the results of recent scientific breakthroughs in the field could help design more effective policies for reducing poverty and social exclusion, but could also be incorporated into policies for public health, education and juvenile justice.