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Poverty May Harm a Child's Brain Development, Study Suggests

TUESDAY, Oct. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Growing up poor might take a toll on a child's brain development, a new study suggests.

"What's new is that our research shows the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the [brain's] hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses that the children experience," study author Dr. Joan Luby, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a university news release.

Luby's team conducted MRI brain scans on 145 children, aged 6 to 12, who had been followed since preschool. Smaller-sized brains were found in those who lived in poverty in their early years, they discovered.

This included a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an important role in memory. The effects of poverty on hippocampus size were influenced by the quality of care received by children, the researchers said, plus the effects of stressful life events. Those stressors might include moving regularly, having parents who fight or the death of a loved one, the researchers said.

According to Luby's group, the findings highlight the importance of helping parents provide children with high-quality care. Preschool programs that provide good supplementary care and a safe haven for vulnerable young children may be part of that assistance.

"Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons," Luby said. "They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food. Perhaps they live in an unsafe environment. They may be facing many stresses, and some don't have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don't have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances."

Charles Nelson, of Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote an editorial accompanying the new study. He believes the findings show how hardship early in development can affect a child's brain structure.

"Exposure to early life adversity should be considered no less toxic than exposure to lead, alcohol or cocaine, and, as such, it merits similar attention from public health authorities," Nelson concluded.

The study was published online Oct. 28 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about children's growth and development.

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, and Washington University, St. Louis, news release, Oct. 28, 2013

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