Children under 18 years of age represent 23 percent of the population, but they comprise 34 percent of all people in poverty. Researchers have known for decades that socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with decreases in a number of important cognitive and achievement measures for children, such as IQ, literacy, achievement tests, and high school graduation rates. More recently, this work has been extended to show that socioeconomic disparities exist in brain structure and function as well. For instance, one recent study found that family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size — specifically, the surface area of the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain that does most of the cognitive heavy lifting. Further, increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.
As part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists, Dr. Noble and her team are now building on this work by planning the first-ever randomized controlled trial of poverty reduction, in which a group of low-income mothers will be randomly assigned to receiving either a large or small monthly income supplement for the first three years of their children's lives. Periodic assessments of the children and their mothers will enable us to estimate the impact of these cash supplements on children's cognitive, emotional and brain development, as well as the effects on family functioning, providing the strongest evidence to date on the causal impact of poverty on children's cognitive and brain development.
This talk is part of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture series, offered free to the public to enhance understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior. The lectures are hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.