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Research: Growing Up Poor Can Impact Adult Brain Function

PHOTO: New research found childhood poverty affects how much the two regions of the prefrontal cortex (as shown in orange circles) were engaged when regulating emotions. Courtesy University of Illinois-Chicago.
PHOTO: New research found childhood poverty affects how much the two regions of the prefrontal cortex (as shown in orange circles) were engaged when regulating emotions. Courtesy University of Illinois-Chicago.
October 31, 2013

PHOENIX – New research finds the stresses of growing up poor can have a lasting impact that foretells a greater risk of both physical and psychological problems as an adult.

Dr. K. Luan Phan, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, was the senior author of the study. It found children at age nine from lower-income families showed less activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain thought to regulate negative emotion.

The result, he says, can manifest in adulthood as problems with stress, anxiety, depression, impulsive aggression and substance abuse.

"The inability to regulate negative affect also could carry over to having trouble with interpersonal relationships, inability to cope with stress while on the job,” he explains, “but also other stress-related medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure."

Phan says children of lower-income parents face many chronic stressors, such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, family turmoil, violence or family separation – all of which can affect brain function in terms of regulating emotions.

Phan points out the research suggests more attention should be given to low-income children, perhaps through screenings at school or at their pediatrician's office, to look for indicators of stress.

"We should be targeting kids growing up in poverty and in families with low incomes,” he says. “This is a particularly vulnerable population and they are not just vulnerable at the time as a child, but also as an adult."

The study was conducted jointly by researchers at four universities, and published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ