Among the studies showing correlations between a child’s early home environment and later brain development that were presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscientists, one stood out as particularly startling.
It was the analysis that showed a correlation between a parent’s income and education level to development in specific areas of the brain essential to learning, memory and stress processing.
The study was led by Kimberly Noble, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, in conjunction with Elizabeth Sowell, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California.
Noble and I spoke Wednesday, the day her research was presented to colleagues, about its significance and about the practical takeaways for shapers of public policy and for parents.
Noble analyzed brain images of subjects who had been raised across the socioeconomic spectrum. Their parents had between eight and 21 years of education and incomes that ranged from below poverty level to more than six times above it (or about $140,000) for a family of four.
She found that the hippocampal region, which is important in learning and memory function, had a larger volume for subjects who were raised by parents with higher incomes.
For education, the volume of a separate region, the amygdala that is involved in stress processing, showed the opposite effect. The higher the parental education level, the smaller the volume.
I asked her if the results suggests that disadvantaged upbringings cause brain deficiencies — a frightening prospect.
She said it does not.
“Certainly, income or education alone are not what causes the differences. Rather, it’s likely it the things that income and education are associated with have something to do with it. We know that providing children with cognitive stimulation and emotional warmth are important: talking to children, bringing them to the library, being warm and nurturing. You can provide cognitive stimulation in the absence of high income.”
That said, the economic trap many families are in can inhibit such quality time. And, in fact, Noble’s working hypothesis is that parental stress is a crucial player in a child’s brain development.
Other studies have shown that animals and humans who endure stress can have larger amygdala. One study Noble referenced followed children adopted from an orphanage abroad and found that the longer the child had spent in the orphanage, the larger his or her amygdala.
Noble pointed out that her own study included a relatively small sample size, so she hopes the findings will encourage more examination in this area.
In the meantime, I asked her what the results might mean for public policy. She said, “At a minimum, we want to encourage policies that would promote healthy child development by optimizing exposure to cognitive stimulation and emotional warmth.”
“One possibility is that by promoting programs that would reduce poverty and increase parents’ educational opportunities, we might in turn promote childhood development.”
And how about what it means for parents?
Providing a warm environment with regular stimulation, she said, is ideal. When there are economic and educational obstacles, her advice is to talk with a child — and keep talking.
“The most important thing you can do is talk to children. The brain plasticity continues through childhood and adolescence.”
What’s your takeaway from these findings? Might they lead us to more effective public policy?