John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Child Development and Brain Health

In teaching medical students about psychiatry, I say that there are two key factors that influence how an individual fares in life. One factor is biological vulnerability, and the other factor is developmental opportunity. A person may be born with a genetically influenced condition like dyslexia, or a genetic vulnerability to addiction (alcoholism, for example, tends to run in families). Someone with biological vulnerability may, however, do quite well if life is filled with developmental opportunity. A person who grows up in a stable family, who attends good schools, and who gets a good job has a life rich in developmental opportunities that may ultimately enable them to overcome the biological vulnerability.

Someone with dyslexia may attend schools that recognize the deficit and help the child learn to read well; or they may have the help of a skilled educational psychologist who can work the magic and overcome the learning differences. On the other hand, someone who grows up in less fortunate circumstances, like living in poverty or suffering a broken home, may do very well if they are biologically resilient and strong. Problems arise, however, when some suffers biological vulnerability as well as a life short on developmental opportunity. When we see the chronically mentally ill, we often see the overlap of these two conditions.

New research suggests that family income, and to a lesser degree parental education, are associated with brain structure differences in children and young adults. Focusing on brain regions critical for language, memory, and executive function in participants aged three to 20 years, scientists found that small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in brain surface area in young people from the lowest-income families. This effect was smaller in higher-income families. Higher income was also associated with better performance in tests of cognitive ability. Increased levels of parental education were also related to increased brain surface area, although this effect was smaller when compared to the influence of income.

Although these study results do not suggest that low-income children have poor cognitive function, they indicate that interventions to reduce family poverty may help reduce socioeconomic disparities in child development and achievement.  The full text of the findings can be found here.