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Study: Poverty Influences Children’s Early Brain Development

PHOTO: A psychology professor, Seth Pollak, is one of the authors of a study that says poverty can be linked to slower brain development in children. Photo courtesy UW-Madison.
PHOTO: A psychology professor, Seth Pollak, is one of the authors of a study that says poverty can be linked to slower brain development in children. Photo courtesy UW-Madison.
December 30, 2013

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Children of low-income families have slower rates of growth in a number of areas, including two key parts of the brain, the parietal lobe and the frontal lobe, according to a new study. The problem is described by one of the researchers involved, psychology professor Seth Pollak.

"Poverty seems to be putting children's brains on a different trajectory of development," he said. "It's slowing the development of the brains of infants living in poverty."

Pollak and other researchers studied 400 children from birth to age four. He said there is a distinct difference in the brain scans of children living in poverty. The research indicates they don't develop as rapidly, which Pollak said helps explain behavioral, learning and attention problems.

"We'll see children living in poverty who are placed in front of a television set and they sit there and they don't really move and they just watch a video all day," he said. "Sometimes they're just left in a room with really nothing to do. We see children come into the laboratory who don't have crayons or pencils, because they don't have any of these things at home."

According to Pollak and his fellow researchers, environmental factors that contribute to slower brain development often come with poverty, such as poor nutrition, lack of sleep, an unsafe environment, and lack of books and educational toys.

The research indicates that child-adult interaction is critical, but often absent in homes of low-income families, along with other factors.

Poverty may make it impossible to have "a child feeling protected, a child feeling secure, a child being supported, a child being spoken to and interacted with in a way that provides the child more information and practice in communication and making sense," he said.

Pollak believes people and governments have an obligation to do what they can to help the 16 million children living below the poverty line in the U.S.

"It seems to me that we have an important role as a society to ensure that all of our children are growing up in a situation that is optimal, and that gives each individual the best possibility for healthy growth and development," he stated.

The study backs up Kentucky's annual measuring stick of child wellness. The 2013 Kentucky Kids Count, which was released earlier this month, found that children in poverty face long-term risks that stifle opportunities for later success. More than one in four Kentucky children live in poverty.

Read a brief version of the study at www.news.wisc.edu/22393.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY