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Scientists Track Poverty's Links to Cognition

"Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children"

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The brains of children who are living in poverty function differently from those of children living in better circumstances, according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

The research shows that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that is active in problem-solving, reasoning, and creativity—responds differently in normal 9- and 10-year-olds who differ only by their socioeconomic status.

The study involved 26 children. Half of them were from poor families, and half were from high-income households.

Measuring electrical activity in the brain with an electroencephalograph, the researchers found response levels were lower in the brains of the children from low-income families when they were viewing a series of pictures of triangles that were then mixed with other images, such as a puppy or Mickey Mouse.

The researchers compared the brain activity at that point with that of people who have had a part of the prefrontal cortex damaged by a stroke.

"It's not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums," Robert Knight, the director of the university's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, said in a press release.

Work is under way at the university to reverse the brain differences by developing games that improve this area of brain function.

The study has been accepted for publication in the August issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Vol. 28, Issue 16, Page 4

Published in Print: January 7, 2009, as Scientists Track Poverty's Links to Cognition
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