Monday, February 18, 2008

Poverty poisons brain development in early childhood

The Financial Times of London, reporting on the recent Boston meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), cites recent studies from several American universities that show that neural development is interfered with in children growing up in conditions of poverty. This effect is thought to be due to unhealthy levels of stress hormones, and is above and beyond any damage caused by poor nutrition and/or exposure to toxins. These studies were done at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and show the pervasive harm is greatest during brain development between the ages of six months and three years. The director of Harvard's center on the developing child, Prof. Jack Shonkoff, said "the foundation of all social problems later in life takes place in the early years." Excessive levels of these stress hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections in the developing brain, and "literally disrupt the brain architecture." The scientists think that this neurocognitive damage is why programs such as Head Start have produced only modest results.

The full article can be found at:

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times on February 18, has a poignant column titled "Poverty is Poison" and cites that 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line in 2006. He faults the governmental shift to the right, since LBJ's "War on Poverty" with its de-emphasis on combatting poverty, for the worsening problem. His very touching article can be found at:

These are important considerations to bear in mind in working with patients and clients who may have grown up in conditions of poverty - as well as in our social and political thinking. The societal consequences are broad and deep and long-lasting.

Key words: Poverty; Neurocognitive impairment; Brain development; Social conditions; Public policy

Posted by Edward H. Stein, M.D.

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