Pure meritocracy is an elusive concept that seems to have strayed from its cradle. If the child poverty was associated, among many other things, with a worse performance at school and lower wages in the future, a recent study points for the first time to a causal relationship between improving families’ resources and their children’s brain activity.

In a context of greater economic resources, children’s experiences have changed and their brain activity has adapted to these experiences.

Created in the manner of a clinical trial, more than a thousand women who lived below the poverty line and who had just become mothers were divided into two groups. Those in the first received a monthly cash income of $333 a month that they could use as they pleased, while those in the second received only $20.

After one year, a electroencephalogram to more than 400 of these children and the study, published in the journal PNAS, summarizes their findings as follows: “In a context of increasing economic resources, children’s experiences have changed and their brain activity has adapted to these experiences. The resulting patterns of brain activity have been shown to be associated with the development of later cognitive skills.”

Per coal wheelProfessor of Psychology at the University of Granada and researcher in brain and cognition who did not participate in the study, “the effect is small, as it could be otherwise, but it is relevant. And impresses in general of the intervention. Providing more economic resources to poor families produces changes in babies’ brain functioning.”

A pioneering study

“None of us believe that income is the only answer,” he said. on the pages of New York Times Kimberly Noble, neuroscientist and pediatrician at Columbia University and principal investigator of the study. But with the project – called baby’s first years“baby’s first years”—, “we go beyond correlation to see if poverty reduction has a direct impact on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development”.

What has been called socioeconomic status has been associated numerous times with academic and cognitive performance and, in fact, “it’s a good predictor”, guarantees Roda. Until several studiesAny signed by Noble itselffound that the extension of some areas of the cerebral cortex is smaller in children from lower-income families.

Several studies have found that the extent of some areas of the cerebral cortex is smaller in children from lower-income families.

However, correlation does not imply causality, as even some t-shirts already say, and although interventions where $4,000 a year was allocated to low-income families early in a child’s life was later associated with better wages, employment, and even health prospects, no such study had ever been conducted to test its effectiveness. influence on brain development.

Association studies lend themselves to possible confounders and, at least theoretically, it may be that circumstances other than poverty that accompany poverty are what cause these effects.

In addition to socioeconomic status being a broad umbrella that does not just include income, some voices they think genetics could explain much of this: if it were, and in his opinion, alleviating poverty would have no consequences on the brain, since the main cause of the differences would be biological. That yes, the few jobs about the genetics that exist about it are very controversial and, as Rueda points out, even so “they explain very little [del estatus socioeconómico]while we have a lot of evidence of the influence of the environment.”

Brain development follows a complex interaction between genetics and environment, and environment and experiences are more important than genetics when growing up in economic adversity.

Charo Rueda, brain and cognition researcher

Brain development is due to “a complex interaction between genetics and the environment”, adds Rueda, “and the environment and experiences are more important than genetics”. growing up in situations of economic adversity”.

On the other hand, brain imaging studies sees no differences according to socioeconomic status at five months birth, but appear later. And studies of brain activity measured with electroencephalogram does not detect differences at birth. Even so, no studies have been done that could claim the power to unravel causality and know whether moderately increasing resources already directly produce benefits on children’s brain. This is the first.

The baby’s first years is defined as a randomized intervention study. By randomly separating the participants into two groups, it sweeps away and minimizes confounding factors, because in principle the main difference between them will be the intervention, the value of the income: that 4,000 dollars a year that practically coincides with the Biden’s proposal to expand and support aid programs threatened to disappear.

Organized by six US universities, its goal is to study children and their mothers up to the age of four. The published results are an intermediate step that they analyzed in more than 400 of them, and for that they used an indirect marker, brain activity in different frequency bands measured by electroencephalography. Greater activity has been associated with better cognitive, socio-emotional, language or attention functions.

“The groups that did the work have a very good track record,” says Rueda, and although it relies on an intermediate marker, “its validity is accepted. Many people are working with this type of data, but here they are doing it with an experimental design that allows causal conclusionsand the changes they find go in the expected direction”.

They used an indirect marker, brain activity in different frequency bands measured with electroencephalography. Increased activity has been linked to better cognitive, socio-emotional, language, or attention functions.

the power of money

The authors cannot guarantee that these standards manifest themselves in objective differences in the future, and even some isolated frequency comparisons did not hold up in statistics when taken to the max, but overall this is what they say in the article: “We believe the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that transfers unconditional monthly monetary allowances given to mothers in our study affected their children’s brain activity.”

Asked about this, Noble explains to SINC that “we cannot say with certainty that we have proven causality, as the sample size was smaller than expected. [la pandemia dificultó la obtención de más datos]but we found evidence to suggest that our intervention changed the children’s brain activity.”

Per Juan Ramon Barradaprofessor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Zaragoza and specialist in Methodology of Behavioral Scienceswho did not participate in the studyWhen Statistics is squeezed so “there are discrepancies of how to act according to the type of study. In this case, I am inclined to say, without dismissing the issue, that this work increases my confidence that money transfer alters brain activity.”

These differences are according to economist and co-author of the article Greg Duncan“similar in magnitude to those recorded inmajor educational interventions”, such as reducing the number of students per class. Of course, the differences are at the level of the group, much less imply an individual destiny. As the nobleman said“There is no way we can know the circumstances of a specific child and predict what his brain will be like.”

More tests when kids turn four

When they turn four years old, the battery of exams will be much broader and more complete”, and we will measure the thinking skills and learning directly,” notes Noble. It will also analyze how families spent money and what was able to determine the changes, which can happen, among other things, for better nutrition or, mainly, for less stress in the family.

“The power of money is that it can be used according to the family’s needs at any time, whether it’s fixing the car or buying diapers. There may not be a way to positively affect families; money can matter in many small ways.” explained Katherine Magnusondirector of the Institute for Poverty Research and also co-author of the work.

Poverty alleviation is justified in itself. Neuroscience gives us a way to understand the mechanisms by which social change may be linked to effects on children.

Kimberly Noble, neuroscientist, pediatrician and study principal investigator

“The fact that a family sees its stress reduced affects the idiosyncrasy of how it raises its children,” says Rueda. “If you have more peace of mind to start what you need, this already improves the sensitivity of the service.” This concern is what has been called “tax on the poverty brain”, increases the risk of depression and anxiety in parents and resembles a mental load that Princeton University professor Eldar Shafir compared continually try to keep a seven-digit number in memory.

Now, shouldn’t the alleviation or eradication of poverty be considered an end in itself? Can studies of this type influence policy decisions? pediatrician and neuroscientist charles nelson He said in an article on the BBC that “pretty pictures of the brain seem to have more impact than pictures of starving children, and I think they make people see that there is a biological price paid for growing up poor”.

For Noble, “poverty alleviation is self-justifying. Neuroscience gives us a way to understand the mechanisms by which social change may be linked to effects on children.”

s this was written about it by Martha Farahneuroscientist and mentor to Noble herself: Why shouldn’t a fuller understanding of any problem, formulated at any applicable level of explanation – physical, biological, psychological, economic, social or political – be an asset in solving it?


Kimberly G. Noble et al “The impact of a poverty alleviation intervention on infant brain activity.” PNAS2022


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