Can financial conditions actually shape brain anatomy?

Photo: Atholpady |

Photo: Atholpady |

Research had previously implied that children who come from families of lower-income groups don’t do as well academically as their more affluent counterparts. And now, a new study claims that these differences can actually be seen in the anatomy of the brain.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University aimed to explore these achievement differences between low-income students and high-income ones. According to an MIT press release, after imaging the brains of both sets of students, it was found that the higher-income students had thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and storing knowledge. These differences were also linked to a measure of academic achievement — performance on standardized tests. Interestingly, in other measures of brain anatomy, the researchers found no significant differences.

MIT’s John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and one of the study’s authors, said, “Just as you would expect, there’s a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children. To me, it’s a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn’t come easily in their environment.”

Previous research has shown that the likelihood of lower-income students enduring stress and having less access to educational resources is higher than higher-income groups. This could be a contributing factor toward lowered academic achievement and hence to the difference in brain anatomy. However, the research did not investigate the reason for the differences.

The real matter at hand is finding ways to bridge this academic gap, allowing all students to progress on a similar level.

“The gap in student achievement, as measured by test scores between low-income and high-income students, is a pervasive and longstanding phenomenon in American education, and indeed in education systems around the world,” Gabrieli said. “There’s a lot of interest among educators and policymakers in trying to understand the sources of those achievement gaps, but even more interest in possible strategies to address them.”

The good news is that there is no evidence to suggest that these anatomical differences in the brain cannot be altered. “There’s so much strong evidence that brains are highly plastic,” says Gabrieli. “Our findings don’t mean that further educational support, home support, all those things, couldn’t make big differences.”

The researchers now intend to explore the educational options that could help close the achievement gap and look at whether interventions could have an influence on brain anatomy.

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