Poverty Impacts Children’s Brain Development, Says TC’s Noble

April 11, 2019

“Children’s socioeconomic status – related to the parents’ income, education, occupation and social status – is strongly associated with their cognitive and brain development, particularly in the areas of language, memory, self-regulation and spatial skills,” Teachers College’s (TC) Kimberly Noble told a room packed with education experts and academics at the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) auditorium in Santiago.

During her trip to Chile in early April, the renowned neuroscientist and pediatrician also presented at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in the context of the launch of the academic year, and met with educational NGO Fundación Oportunidad.

 “The brain may be the most complex three pounds in the universe,” with a child’s brain realizing some 1,000 trillion synapses by the time he is three years old, she said, pointing to studies indicating that children of highly educated parents have better language skills by 21 months of age.

In fact, the first three years are fundamental for the development of the brain, when this organ is most “plastic” or able to make new connections, Noble noted during her presentation “The Neuroscience of Inequality: Does Poverty Show Up in Children’s Brains?”

Oftentimes society attempts to correct this disparity at the school age and results can be promising but this is labor-intensive, costly and may be too late. Likewise, changing the child’s early experiences via parenting interventions can be affective but are also costly and labor-intensive, difficult to scale and suffer attrition. On the other hand, income and addressing socioeconomic disparities in the child’s earliest development provides an interesting alternative. It may not be the most important factor in children’s brain development, but it may be the most manipulable from a policy perspective, the professor said.

As such, Noble and a team of economists and policy experts are working on the world’s first clinical trail of poverty reduction in early childhood, to see if increased adult earnings will have a causal impact on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development. The study, called “Baby’s First Years,” will provide 1000 low-income mothers with an unconditional cash gift for 40 months. The theory is that the higher income will reduce stress in the mother and allow her to invest more in her child’s cognitive, socio-emotional and brain development.

Preliminary patterns suggest that these actions allow for more frequent mother-child activities, less household chaos and less parenting stress, providing more optimal conditions for the development of the child’s left hemisphere cortex, hippocampus and prefrontal/limbic circuitry, which respectively affect language, memory, and cognitive and emotional regulation, according to the expert.

In turn, Rodrigo Aguirre, Master in Public Health at Columbia University and psychiatrist at the Instituto de Neuroprotección Infantil (INPI), pointed to evidence that the nervous system and the brain begin to develop in the intrauterine period. He called for public programs in Chile to invest and intervene “as soon as possible” in the lives of the mother and her child, highlighting that in Chile up to 30% of children suffer from multidimensional poverty. “Privations affect a child’s most important organ – his brain,” he said. “Chile is behind in this area. Introducing the brain into issues of poverty, necessarily means that we need to open up the discussion.”

“Investing in children isn’t the whim of a certain political sector – all government administrations need to put boys and girls first,” added Carol Bown, Undersecretary for Childhood Affairs at the Ministry of Social Development

“By leveraging brain science, we have what’s needed to have our advocate voices be heard,” summarized Noble to close the conference. During her time in Chile, the neuroscientist and pediatrician also presented at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in the context of the launch of the academic year, and she met with educational NGO Fundación Oportunidad and alumni from Teachers College.

Use this link to see Noble’s presentation at an official TED conference, this link for more information on Baby’s First Years study, this link to see Noble’s presentation in Spanish. Click here to see the Pictures Gallery of her visit to Chile.