Flipping channels, Dr. Phil comes onto the main screen and has a mother and daughter in opposite angles to him. The problems seemed to be typical psychological, reality-show formula: mom is overprotective of her teenage daughter, teenage daughter ‘rebels’ and begins a long distance relationship with a man 10 years her senior (who also happens to be a drug dealer still serving time), and the conflicts between them become unbearable. Dr. Phil in his infinite wisdom brought out his objectivity to the mother, and then to the daughter. It is however the explanation to the daughter that resonates with her: “Now remember, it is the Neocortex that develops last in the brain, and that means right now, you’re not able yet to have complete insight to all of the consequences of your actions. This is why you would need guidance with some of your decisions, including starting a relationship with a currently jailed drug dealer.”
Most of us have a familiarity with family drama played out on television. Whether the purpose is to entertain or to educate, the family’s dysfunctional dynamic from one to the next seem to be rooted deep into social, educational and economic factors. How then is the brain development affected? Is Dr. Phil’s approach by combining the brain science with family dynamics warranted?
In the early online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience (March 30, 2015), investigators from nine universities across the country reports correlative links between family income and brain structure. Relationships between the brain and family income were strongest in the lowest end of the economic range, thus suggesting that interventional policies aimed at these children may have the largest societal impact. The study, led by researchers at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Columbia University Medical Center.
In the largest study of its kind to date, the researchers looked at 1,099 typically developing individuals between the ages of 3 and 20 years as part of the multi-site Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition and Genetics (PING) study. Associations between socioeconomic factors (including parent education and family income) and measurements of surface area of the brain were drawn from demographic and developmental history questionnaires, as well as high-resolution brain MRIs. Statistics (controlled for education, age and genetic ancestry) showed that income was nonlinearly associated with brain surface area, and that income was more strongly associated with the brain than was parental educational attainment.
First author Kimberly G. Noble, MD, PhD says, “Specifically, among children from the lowest-income families, small differences in income were associated with relatively large differences in surface area in a number of regions of the brain associated with skills important for academic success. ” Dr. Noble is an assistant professor of pediatrics and director of the Neurocognition, Early Experience and Development (NEED) Lab of Columbia University Medical Center. She is also an associate professor of Neuroscience and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Conversely, among children from higher-income families, incremental increases in income level were associated with much smaller differences in surface area. Higher income was also associated with better performance in certain cognitive skills; cognitive differences that could be accounted for by greater brain surface area.
“While in no way implying that a child’s socioeconomic circumstances lead to immutable changes in brain development or cognition, our data suggest that wider access to resources likely afforded by the more affluent may lead to differences in a child’s brain structure,” said Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, part of the Institute for the Developing Mind at CHLA. “Family income is linked to factors such as nutrition, health care, schools, play areas and, sometimes, air quality,” added Dr. Sowell, indicating that everything going on in the environment shapes the developing brain. “Future research may address the question of whether changing a child’s environment — for instance, through social policies aimed at reducing family poverty — could change the trajectory of brain development and cognition for the better.”
From the socio-economic factors, we take a look at socio-psychological factors, some of which affect our ability to create meaningful connections. A recent study from the University of Georgia shows differences in brain structure according to how trusting people are of others.
The team of researchers used two measures to determine the trust levels of 82 study participants. The participants filled out a self-reported questionnaire about their tendency to trust others. They also were shown pictures of faces with neutral facial expressions, and were asked to evaluate how trustworthy they found each person in the picture. This gave researchers a metric, on a spectrum, of how trusting each participant was of others.
Researchers then took MRI scans of the participants’ brains to determine how brain structure is associated with the tendency to be more trusting of others. What researchers found were differences in two areas of the brain.
“The most important finding was that the grey matter volume was greater in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region that serves to evaluate social rewards, in people that tended to be more trusting of others,” said the study’s lead author Brian Haas, an assistant professor in the department of psychology.
“Another finding that we observed was for a brain region called the amygdala. The volume of this area of the brain, which codes for emotional saliency, was greater in those that were both most trusting and least trusting of others. If something is emotionally important to us, the amygdala helps us code and remember it.”
The long term hope for the research may have implications for future treatments of psychological conditions such as autism. Future studies may focus on how, and if, trust can be improved and whether the brain is malleable according to the type of communication someone has with another. “There are conditions, like autism, that are characterized by deficits in being able to process the world socially, one of which is the ability to trust people,” Dr. Haas said. “Here we have converging evidence that these brain regions are important for trust; and if we can understand how these differences relate to specific social processes, then we may be able to develop more targeted treatment techniques for people who have deficits in social cognition.”
So what can we do as a community with fragile families who have young children in such a fast-paced, competitive, and digitally plugged world? Begin the developmental awareness young for a firmer foundation with research-backed programs.
Supporting this is new research from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) revealing high-quality early education is especially advantageous for children when they start younger and continue longer. Not only does more high-quality early education significantly boost the language skills of children from low-income families, children whose first language is not English benefit even more.
“These findings show that more high-quality early education and care can narrow the achievement gap before children reach kindergarten,” said Noreen M. Yazejian, principal investigator of FPG’s Educare Learning Network Implementation Study. “Children from low-income families can improve their standing relative to their middle class peers.”
Ms. Yazejian said previous research has shown language skills are most malleable for children before age 4, which in large part explains high-quality early education’s powerful effects. Her study examined children’s receptive language skills–the ability to hear and understand words–because these particular skills are an excellent predictor of later academic success.
According to Yazejian, Educare classrooms offered the chance to study children enrolled in high-quality early education and care from the earliest ages. Educare is an enhanced Early Head Start and Head Start program for low-income, high-needs children from 6 weeks old until entry into kindergarten. The model has been replicated in 20 schools nationwide over the last 15 years.
“Educare’s comprehensive approach to early childhood education aims to level the playing field for children living in poverty,” said Portia Kennel, executive director of the Educare Learning Network. “This new study confirms that we need to include the earliest years of life as part of our nation’s education system. Quality early education prepares vulnerable children for success by preventing the achievement gap that appears long before kindergarten.”
Many people traditionally have viewed early care for infants primarily as a support for mothers who want to work and not as an essential component of early schooling. However, findings from the FPG study add to a growing body of research revealing better outcomes for children from low-income families who start high-quality education earlier and stay in it longer.
Earlier research has shown the English language skills that dual-language learners develop prior to kindergarten can predict educational achievement through eighth grade, but keeping skills in the home language also is beneficial. Home language skills are related to long-term social, emotional, cognitive, and academic outcomes.
“Most dual-language learners in this study were in classrooms where English was the primary instructional language but in which one staff member could use their home language as needed to support learning,” Ms. Yazejian explained. “It’s not surprising our findings show they quickly acquired skills in English. That’s why it’s reassuring that our study found that the acquisition of English language skills in Educare classrooms does not come at the expense of Spanish skills.”
The number of young children who speak a language other than English at home is growing, and this study contributes valuable new information to the field. “It’s encouraging to see that dual-language learners are making strides that form the critical foundation for later learning,” according to Ms. Kennel.
Ms.Yazejian encourages the thinking that more than one year of high quality early care and education brings greater benefits for children. “The differences we found in this study, extrapolated to thousands of children–especially dual-language learners–could add up to lasting effects and lower public education costs.”