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Research Finds Growing Up Poor can Impact Adult Brain Function

PHOTO: New research found childhood poverty impacted how much the two regions of the prefrontal cortex (as shown in orange circles) were engaged during emotion regulation. Photo:brain. Courtesy UIC.
PHOTO: New research found childhood poverty impacted how much the two regions of the prefrontal cortex (as shown in orange circles) were engaged during emotion regulation. Photo:brain. Courtesy UIC.
October 28, 2013

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - New research finds that the stress of growing up poor can have a lasting effect on a child, predictive of a greater risk of both physical and psychological problems as an adult. The senior author of the study, Dr. K. Luan Phan, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Medicine, said that in the study, children at age nine, who had lower family incomes, showed less activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to regulate negative emotion.

The result, he said, 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, but also other stress-related medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure," he said.

According to Phan, children of lower-income families face many chronic stressors, such as substandard housing, crowding, noise, family turmoil, violence or family separation, that can have an impact on brain function during emotional regulation.

He said the research suggests that there needs to be more attention given to low-income children, perhaps through screenings at school or on visits to pediatricians, to look for indicators of stress.

"We should be targeting kids growing up in poverty and in families with low incomes," the doctor said. "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 by researchers at UIC, Cornell University, University of Michigan and University of Denver and published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The study is available at news.uic.edu.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL