Study Finds Childhood Poverty Affects Adult Brains’ Ability to Control Emotions

brain_f2A study conducted by researchers at four universities has found that adults who grew up in low-income households and experienced the stresses of poverty have more problems regulating their emotions than other adults. The study, published on the website of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Denver.

The research found that test subjects who came from low-income families had greater activity in the amygdala area of the brain as adult. This area of the brain is associated with fear and other negative emotions. These individuals also showed lower brain activity in the prefrontal cortex which is associated with controlling negative emotions.

K. Luan Phan, professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and senior author of the study, stated, “Our findings suggest that the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult.”

This study is particularly important to African Americans. Some 21 percent of all American children under the age of 18 are now being reared in poverty. And Blacks are three times as likely to be poor as Whites.

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  1. I would like to hear from a range of Black psychologists and developmental theorists. The more I read of this work, the more it seems to be the old culture of poverty argument masquerading as neuroscience. The remedy, I fear will be pharmacological treatments of Black children, rather than efforts designed to alleviate poverty. These drug therapies will be accompanied by classes for the Black mothers who these studies tend to implicate. I also find it interesting that the discussion of what counts as normative development in high-poverty, high-stress environments tends to be mute.

    Any psychologists and developmental folks out there who can comment on this work and the related research on grit, self-regulation, and so on. How is this different than the culture of poverty arguments of 50 years ago? Or are we supposed to take this research as indisputable because it is framed in neuro-scientific terms?

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