Poverty affects early brain development. Giving money to families can help.
Supporting low-income families with cash could protect infants from the deleterious effects of poverty on brain development, according to a study released Monday.
Preliminary results from an ongoing clinical trial found that infants whose families received an additional annual income of $4,000 were more likely to exhibit patterns of brain activity associated with the development of thinking and learning.
The findings come just weeks after the Child Tax Credit, which provided extra money for low-income parents, expired.
Previous research has shown that growing up in poverty impacts brain development, including lower rates of college attendance and high school graduation in children who grew up in poverty. Over the past decade, dozens of studies have shown differences in brain matter and brain activity in children and adults living in poverty.
But the new study goes even further, demonstrating the causal link between poverty and brain development.
“All previous work has been correlational,” said Dr. Kimberly Noble, professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who co-authored the study. “We could say, based on previous work, that poverty is related to these differences, but we could not say that poverty caused these differences. From a scientific perspective, the only way to answer this question is through a randomized clinical trial.
This clinical trial is the Baby’s first years trial, the first of its kind. It started in 2018 with the aim of asking a simple question about a complicated problem: what impact does the regular cash income of low-income families have on the brain development of children in these families?
Noble, with researchers from six universities, recruited low-income women who had recently given birth in New Orleans; New York City; Omaha, Nebraska; and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Mothers were randomized to receive either a debit card with a monthly donation of $333 or a nominal monthly donation of $20. This represented an additional annual income of $3,996 or $240. There were no stipulations on how the money could be spent by the mothers, who are mostly black and Latina.
By intervening in this way, researchers are able to see whether or not there is a direct causal link between cash support to low-income families and child development. The higher amount was chosen because it is an achievable amount that could be included in policies that provide allowances to families living in poverty.
Throughout the four-year trial, the team will make annual home visits to measure children’s brain activity, ask mothers to complete a questionnaire and observe mother and baby together.
Results from the trial’s first year were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
These results focused on the brain activity of 435 one-year-olds in the study.
According to Noble, everyone has both slow and fast brain activity patterns. As children get older, they tend to have more rapid or high frequency brain activity. This rapid brain activity in early childhood is associated with the later development of skills necessary for learning.
Babies from families who received more money from the study had more of these fast brain waves than those from families who received the lowest amount.
Dr. Joan Luby, the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said brain development does not occur uniformly throughout life. .
Neuroscientists are beginning to focus on specific time periods, particularly in early childhood, when brain development occurs rapidly, said Luby, who was not involved in the new study. During these times, the brain is extremely sensitive to environmental factors.
“There are windows of opportunity or vulnerability when the brain changes in response to the psychosocial environment. It is important to enrich, not deprive, children during these crucial times,” she said. Cash support for the trial “provides families living in poverty with the resources they can use for food, childcare, giving parents some leeway so they can potentially spend more time with their child. Those are all the things that this little cash injection is doing during this very critical time.
The research team is working to gather more information about how the money was spent and what circumstances may have led to changes in brain activity. But because the trial was randomized and controlled, “we know that the $333 per month must have changed the children’s experiences or environments, and their brains adapted to these new circumstances,” Noble said.
Luby said the data couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Child Tax Credit, which offered low-income families up to $300 one month per child under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which expired on January 14, as the Senate could not reach an agreement on whether to extend the support.
Cash grants play an important role in addition to funds specifically earmarked for food or childcare, experts say.
“The power of money is that it can be used when the family needs it, to fix the car or buy diapers. It’s a powerful way to empower people to take care of themselves. themselves and that’s critical when it comes to caring for children,” said Katherine Magnuson, director of the Poverty Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who also co-authored the study.
“Economic resources are a way for parents to invest in their children. You can’t just think of it as adults getting or not getting the money, we need to take a child-centred perspective in how we think about supporting families,” she said.
According to Dr. Martha Farah, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society, who was not involved in the research, early results already illustrate subtle differences in brain activity that point to differences in cognitive and emotional abilities. development.
“The most important discoveries will come in the future, when children are old enough to show everyone their cognitive and language skills, self-control and other important early developmental achievements,” she said.
CORRECTION: (January 24, 2022 5:50 PM ET) A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the universities of the researchers. The low-income mothers in the study were recruited from New Orleans; New York City; Omaha, Nebraska; and the Twin Cities of Minnesota; universities are not in all these cities.