Research Lead: Developmental


Researchers Find Relationship Between Children’s Brain Structure and Parental Income, Education

[Neuroscience & Developmental Psychology]

Numerous studies have linked poverty with impaired cognitive development, but to date little is known about how socioeconomic status might relate to the physical development of the brain. In a recent study, published in Nature Neuroscience, Columbia University researchers Kimberly Noble, Suzanne Houston and their colleagues completed the largest investigation of socioeconomic status and children’s brain structure to date.

The researchers found both parental education and family income to be associated with a child’s brain structure—particularly in regions critical to language, executive functions and memory. To explore the link between socioeconomic factors and brain structure, the researchers examined the surface area of the cortex—collected from over 1000 youth ranging in age from 3 to 20, as a part of the multi-site Pediatric Imaging, Neurocognition and Genetics study—in relation to family income and parental education, while controlling for age, sex, and genetic ancestry.

Children whose parents spent more years in high school or college showed increased brain surface area compared to children whose parents experienced lower levels of education. The relationship between parental education and surface area followed a linear path, “implying that any increase in parental education, whether an extra year of high school or college, was associated with a similar increase in surface area over the course of childhood and adolescence.”

Similarly, children with higher family income also tended to have increased brain surface area. However, the relationship between income and surface area was not linear, but rather logarithmic, meaning the increase in brain surface area per dollar earned was comparatively greater for children from lower earning families than for those from more financially well off households.

Understanding the link between socioeconomic status and experience-dependent brain development is an important step for both researchers and policy makers looking for ways to close the achievement gap. However, it should be noted that the present study does not identify a causal link between socioeconomic status and brain structure—it does not identify what socioeconomic related experiences impact brain development. The question remains how factors like stress, nutrition, exposure to environmental toxins, or cognitive stimulation impact a child’s brain in her prenatal environment and/or her post natal environment.

Finally, the authors make a point of stating, “Our results should in no way imply that a child’s socioeconomic circumstances lead to an immutable trajectory of cognitive or brain development.” They point out there are a number of other factors that explain differences in brain development. Nevertheless, they conclude, “Many leading social scientists and neuroscientists believe that policies reducing family poverty could have meaningful effects on children’s brain functioning and cognitive development.”


Sacrificing Ethics to Achieve Money and Status, a Gender Difference

Underrepresentation of women in high-paying, executive positions within the business sector is a widely-recognized, though stubbornly persistent, phenomenon. Whereas much past research into the source of this disparity emphasizes external barriers such as stereotypes, social roles, and backlash, more recent research has focused on how women’s own perceptions and choices lead them away from such positions. Kennedy and Kray add to this alternative current by examining how women’s perceptions of ethical compromises might disincline them to pursue careers that are often expected to make such tradeoffs.

In a series of three experiments, the researchers found that women reported more moral outrage than men when presented with scenarios detailing ethical compromise for business gains, such as achieving company goals and increased profits. Similarly, though women did not indicate less baseline interest in business jobs than men, they expressed less interest when the positions involved such compromise, and showed stronger implicit associations between “business” and “immorality” than male participants. Kennedy and Kray also introduced a new factor to the literature by examining the role of “social status as a driver of ethical compromise.”

In conjunction with past research, the authors indicate that such results should not be seen as reason for women to avoid the business sector; instead, they suggest women’s advancement is an opportunity to bring business practices closer in line with social morality on a broad scale.  At any rate, it is becoming increasingly apparent that shattering the infamous “glass ceiling” is not just a matter of lifting women up for their own sake.

“Infant ERPs separate children at risk of dyslexia who become good readers from those who become poor readers”

[Developmental Psychology]

Developmental dyslexia, most widely recognized as a reading disorder, and whose causes are not precisely known, is characterized by multiple deficits. In this longitudinal study, van Zuijen et al. examine how one of these, a phonological deficit (the difficulty connecting letters to the sounds they make), may be an early indicator of later reading trouble. Starting with at-risk infants as young as 2 months old, the researchers studied brain activity during a phonological differentiation task. Years later, when the participants were in second grade, the researchers followed up with a reading fluency test. The children whose brain scans during the phonological task had exhibited a mismatched response (MMR) were reading fluently, but those who did not show MMR were not. These results are consistent with theories of dyslexia as a phonological deficit, and show that there are very early neurophysiological precursors to dysfluent reading, which could be valuable in early identification. Furthermore, lateralization differences between the subjects and controls supports theories of alternative speech processing circuitry that may develop as a compensatory mechanism for some children with phonological impairments early on.